When Events Attack: Managing Communications in a Crisis

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Imagine an outbreak of Norovirus on a cruise ship during an event, a branded archway collapsing on a crowd at a tradeshow, a bomb threat, or a fire at your hotel during a conference. Anywhere there is a gathering of people there is potential for something to go wrong. Having the right plan in place and acting appropriately can help ensure public safety, as well as ensure your brand survives when events attack.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on “Managing PR in a Crisis” produced by the Boston chapter of the American Marketing Association. The panel included several crisis communications rock stars:

  • Thomas Lee, who was the spokesperson during the MWRA Deer Island disaster where two workers suffocated in an undersea tunnel – currently at 451 Marketing
  • Donna Morrissey, who managed communications for the Archdiocese of Boston during the Priest scandal – currently at the American Red Cross
  • Capt. Vic Beck, who managed Public Affairs during the Iraq War – currently at U.S. Navy

The panel was led by John Kellogg, a PR expert at Commonwealth Creative Associates.

Having been through a few event crisis situations in my career, I found the content to be extremely relevant for event practitioners. Here are 6 tips the panel brought up during the discussion which every event planner should consider as they build out their programs.

1. Have a set communications protocol in place: The worst position you can be in when a crisis occurs is unprepared. Make sure you develop a communication plan which addresses: what gets communicated, who gets communicated to, and what channels will be used for this communication during and after a crisis. Make sure your plan is flexible and revisited before each event to ensure it is ready to go in the event of any crisis. Having a plan and being prepared for a crisis is more important than ever with the immediacy of the social web.

2. Understand every audience is different: Audiences are complex. Different situations require different approaches in crisis communications. Make sure your plan is tailored to each audience and each situation through on-the-scene intelligence. It’s a good idea to discuss the dynamics of event audiences before your event so your plan can be tailored accordingly.

3. Writing matters!: Before one word is uttered about the crisis, take the time to think through and write down your messages. Practice reading it aloud. This will help you unsure the communication is complete, consistent and accurate. Always strive for simplicity and clarity.

4. Accuracy is critical: Get the facts straight before building your message. Be truthful and honest at all times with all audiences. If informational inaccuracies do occur due to different perspectives and the like, correct them, acknowledge them and communicate them as quickly as possible.

5. Speed is important: Ensure public safety first, then ensure your communication plan is executed as quickly as possible during and after the crisis. Remember accuracy trumps speed. Make sure you have correct information before communicating your messages to anyone.

6. Credibility is paramount: Crisis communicators have long been perceived as dishonest spin doctors. Always do the right thing. Humanity and authenticity goes a long way when engaging your audiences. Ethics matter. Be transparent to the situation. Anything less than “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” should never even be considered during a crisis situation at an event. This above all else will drive trust and brand affinity well beyond the crisis.

There was once a time when PR practioners believed if they controlled the media, they controlled the message. Social media has made crisis communications far more challenging, and crisis communicators need to move more quickly than ever to ensure accurate, trustworthy information is communicated to audiences of all types. Sources matter, therefore the social web cannot be 100% trusted despite the speed at which citizen journalists are reporting their perceptions of crisis situations. It’s critical event planners are prepared with the right plan, the correct approach and the appropriate response to any crisis situation. Be accurate, be fast, and above all, be honest and your audiences and brand will recover when events attack.

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