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Preparing for major emergencies
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 07/21/2008

Life1 Most of us understand that emergencies will happen. Virtually every corporation or college or governmental entity has operational emergency plans.

By emergencies, I am referring to major events that go far beyond several days of troubling or policy-oriented media questions. Examples include product failures that lead to injuries or deaths, or any negative policy-oriented event that causes the attention of regional or national media.

The problem is that few organizations include public affairs in their emergency plans. There are two key issues in preparing for emergencies: knowing everything possible about the organization, and having plans in place to deal with the media.

Having your lines of communications established ahead of time is crucial to dealing with any media related crisis. Knowing everything possible about your organization is a fundamental strategy of good public relations. But there is a huge difference in being prepared for day- to- day media requests and an unexpected onslaught of press inquiries due to a sudden or catastrophic event.

Emergencies can define organizations. They can establish you as good “corporate” citizens, or something else.

The benefits of paid advertising and marketing efforts can quickly disappear if emergencies are not handled properly. With so much at risk, it is more than prudent to prepare. One of the organizations I represented during my 14-year tenure as the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was the state's emergency operations center (the Maryland Emergency Management Agency).

Every state in the country has a similar organization. Whether it is a hurricane or a winter storm, or a plane crash or a national emergency, we were prepared for every contingency. Along with the operations plan was a media strategy. It is a complex document designed to anticipate everything.

If necessary, the state could call in scores of public affairs officers to assist operations. During my tenure, I was designated the primary spokesperson. Under me would be a second in command whose sole job was to handle all logistics.

This person would be in charge of everything else beyond the primary speaking role. It was their function to protect me. Regardless as to everything that was necessary to set up and operate an emergency media command center, I was not tasked with the responsibility. It was somebody else's job.

Under this person was a crew chief who ran the media center. It was their job to make sure that all public affairs officers and rumor control personnel were speaking to “selected” audiences with one voice.

The most important job of this person was to put known facts on flip charts and in a Word document and place them in sequential order around the room. The beauty behind this system is that known facts are recorded in the order they came in, thus providing a history of everything that transpired.

If there is confusion over details or if new personnel arrive at the scene, then all anyone would have to do is to refer to the flip charts or Word documents to establish what happened and when.

During any emergency, you will experience an amazing amount of conflicting information that will tax the abilities of all concerned. It is crucial that everyone involved agree to known facts, and the order they came in.

We refer to this as “Who is god, and what does god have to say.” Establishing your gods at the very beginning of any crisis is incredibly important.

Gods are individuals who are authorized to have the final say in what is released to the media. In my case, it was the governor of Maryland, or the director of Maryland Emergency Management, or a specific technical expert designated by the director.

Within any emergency there will be scores of important or self-important individuals (known to us as unauthorized spokespersons—or more colorful terms) who will make declarative statements to the media. Many of these assertions will conflict with your known facts.

There is a certain point where there will be so many rumors and so many statements from multiple “players” as to cast doubt on the veracity of authorized spokespersons. It becomes crucial to your ability to speak with authority and precision to establish a small number of people who will authorize your statements.

The primary spokesperson will take his or her known facts and contrary statements from others to god for final instructions. It cannot happen any other way.

Someone must be in the position of analyzing everything there is to know about the emergency and provide final guidance. This information is posted on your flip charts; thus everyone involved in your public relations team is aware of relevant information necessary to do their job.

The primary spokesperson is doing nothing else but speaking to god, approving news releases, and relaying information to the media. The second in command handles everything else. What falls into this category of “everything else” is often mind-boggling.

Parking areas for the media must be established. Press releases need to be written. Individuals must be appointed to escort photographers and journalists into and out of the area. Public affairs representatives need to be fed. Bathroom areas need to be found. Liaisons with unauthorized spokespeople and “allied” agencies need to be established. Disagreements need to be ironed out.

Probably the most difficult job of the second in command is to find the necessary equipment to create an emergency media center, especially if you are operating from a remote site.

Copying machines do not appear out of thin air. Tables and chairs need to be found. Telephone lines need to be installed. Walkie-talkies and cellular phones need to be obtained or bought or borrowed. Plastic yellow tape that police officers use to rope off a crime scene can become a crucial ingredient in making sure that the right people stay in the right area.

I could go on for another 20 or 30 pages with everything that is necessary to operate the media command center during a time of crisis. There are, existing materials that address this issue (see www.fema.gov for federal materials).

Public affairs officers from your state's emergency operations center will be more than happy to share existing plans and lists of equipment necessary for success. A call to your governor’s press office will put you in touch with the right person.

The primary point of this discussion is to convince all involved that the organization must prepare for media emergencies ahead of time. It is foolhardy in the extreme to assume that a major operational and public relations crisis will not fall upon your organization.

I have handled (with others) plane crashes, tornadoes, prison riots, police shootings, major snow emergencies that shut down the state for the entire week, and the evacuation of a city due to an approaching hurricane. I was at FEMA headquarters for Hurricane Katrina.

We have been involved in federally graded drills involving mock disasters at nuclear power plants and chemical stockpiles. During these drills, representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pose as reporters and throw every conceivable question at us.

The media center would be full of individuals trying to clarify dozens of false rumors designed to trick us into saying something that was not correct. The scenario would involve a potential meltdown at a nuclear power plant, thus forcing the evacuation of millions of people in the Washington-Baltimore area. We were taking orders from the director of emergency management, and the secretary for the Department of the Environment (our gods).

During the role-play, federal evaluators posing as reporters would state that the county executive for one of the affected jurisdictions disagreed vehemently with our evacuation plans, and ordered the county police department not to participate.

At the same time, there was a major accident involving a burning truck on a bridge on one of the key evacuation routes. On top of that, a Washington D.C. television station was reporting massive radiation exposure for all people within 30 miles of the plant.

All of this information was incorrect, and was designed to do nothing else but to create confusion and test our ability to ascertain correct facts, and to convey them accurately to the media. When information and misinformation is coming at you fast and furious from dozens of different sources, it becomes crucial to know what you're going to do and how you're going to do it.

But the interesting thing about handling a problem at a nuclear power plant, or a major snowstorm, or a plane crash, or a prison riot, or an evacuation of a city is that it is relatively easy because there is a plan in place (that is practiced and evaluated) that tells us what to do.

It is an entirely different set of affairs, however, if your corporation’s financial stability is suddenly threatened when you discovered that a trusted employee has just stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in a fraud that has been years in the making.

This is not Mother Nature on a rampage. This incident will become a media and policy nightmare, especially if you are unprepared.

People will question the organization's ability to police itself. Stockholders will desert the organization in droves. Suppliers will question your ability to pay for goods and services.

Customers will decide that competitors are worthy of consideration. In some cases the scandal and the stench are so serious that it imperils not just the leadership of your organization but the entire company itself.

Crises are occurrences within the life of any organization. They may not happen that often, but they will happen at some point.

There have been false rumors about a corporation's product that resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in sales. Planes have tumbled out of the sky due to illegal cargo.

A ship carrying millions of gallons of oil runs aground in an environmentally sensitive area in Alaska. College trustees have opened up the morning paper to suddenly find that their president has been arrested on a morals charge.

I could go on and on with endless examples of organizations suddenly finding themselves on the receiving end of hundreds if not thousands of media inquiries all focusing on issues that have huge policy implications for the organization.

There is only one way to prepare for these inevitable events. You need to create (and practice) an emergency media plan.

You need to anticipate every possible major negative about your organization and create a plan designed to handle any contingency.

There is not one ounce of difference between your state's emergency operations media plan, and your organization’s effort. The mechanics of handling a major snowstorm are the same if your organization suddenly has to counter vicious and untrue rumors about its products.

You need to establish a primary spokesperson. You need to have a backup person who will handle all logistics.

Have somebody in charge of an emergency media operations center who will insure that all spokespeople are saying the same thing in the same way to selected audiences. Someone needs to record all known facts.

You need to keep track of what the media is saying. You need to know who is god, and what god has to say.

You cannot do any of this without thinking it through ahead of time. This becomes the most difficult issue in emergency media planning. Very few people within the organization are going to appreciate your doomsday preparations.

No one wants to take the time to delve into all the hellish topics that could possibly spring up. There is little wonder why so many organizations get trashed by the media.

Sometimes it becomes almost impossible to get any organization prepared for harsh media encounters. Most executives would rather not embrace possible nightmare scenarios.

Most people would rather clean toilets at the ballpark then envision a corporate vice president fleeing to the Bahamas with $50 million of the organization's money.

But when the worst occurs, the media are there to cover every juicy detail. Many executives are confused and totally incapable of providing clear guidance.

The organization decides to issue a terse statement, and by doing so allows every possible detractor and disgruntled employee to speak for the establishment.

The ever distrustful and cynical media decide that your lack of response is a clear indication of your guilt, and decide to embrace your detractors, who are more than willing to appear on camera and be quoted in the newspapers.

You watch as the organization goes down in flames all because of the unwillingness to prepare ahead of time for disasters. I am not suggesting that a media crisis plan will make the disaster disappear.

I am suggesting that a plan will minimize the damage. It may even buy some goodwill during extremely difficult times.

Note: This article was prepared by regular columnist, Leonard Sipes, for government and corporate personnel for a series of presentations on public relations. All rights reserved.

Other articles by Sipes:

Promoting corrections

Managing a media frenzy? Stick to the script.


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