Communicating in a Crisis: Predict, Prepare and Protect
22 Oct, 2014By: Kathleen A. DeMarco
The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. More recently, the August 2014 NASCAR tragedy that took the life of driver Kevin Ward, Jr. And of course, the Boston Marathon bombing. These crises stand out as some of the worst-case examples of what could go wrong during a sporting event. No matter the sport, the venue or the number of competitors and spectators, all events have the potential of facing a crisis.
As an event producer, you are ultimately responsible for safeguarding people and property, protecting the reputation of your event, its governing body and potentially the sport itself. In the face of a crisis, are you prepared?
The key to handing a crisis lies in clear communications with both internal and external audiences. While you may not be able anticipate every possible crisis that may occur, an advance planning process and preparation of a comprehensive yet flexible crisis communications plan will help protect lives and important assets and mitigate the risk of legal negligence. Much like you plan for venues, lodging, transportation and concessions, crisis communication planning should be part of the preparation for all events.
It has been documented that the average amount of time the ball is in play in a typical football game is 11 minutes, and just over 12 minutes for a baseball game, compared to the days, weeks and months athletes spend training for those precious moments of competition. Similarly, event producers need to put significant time and effort into advance preparation and planning for the few minutes they may have to act when a crisis arises. Like athletes who build muscle memory, having an established process that addresses response measures for a range of potential crises will go far in protecting lives and important assets in a limited time.
Proactive Preparation – Before the Event
Event producers may be lulled into a sense of security based on past events that experienced no major crises. That is a risky mindset; rather, adopt a proactive approach that assumes something will go very wrong and all eyes will be on you and your event team to provide information, direction and assurance. While you cannot always prevent a crisis, having a plan in place to address a range of potential issues will provide a measure of control and order in terms of response and reactive procedures. Sample, customizable crisis management and communications planning templates are widely available on the Internet; for large-scale events, a consultant may be instrumental in assisting with the development of your plan.
To kick off the crisis management planning process, conduct a thorough risk assessment and vulnerability audit that examines potential risks and identifies the necessary communications that will serve as a means to mitigate potential losses. Gather your staff and identify as many types of crises to which your event could be vulnerable. Consider not only the more likely issues, such as weather, natural disaster, power failure, fire or serious medical emergency, but also brainstorm worst-case scenarios: a work stoppage that brings facility operations to a halt, forcing event postponement or cancellation; an active shooter or hostage situation; a bomb threat; serious criminal activity; an illness outbreak or a loss of life. Prioritize your list of potential risks and begin crafting procedures to address them, spending more time and putting more detail into the issues more likely to occur.
Advance Crisis Planning with Your Local Event Partners
Well before your event, consult with your liability and event cancellation insurance carriers which likely have programs to assess and mitigate event risks. Review your coverage and policy terms to ensure they are adequate in addressing the potential risks you’ve identified. Be sure you are aware of and understand your policy terms which may require documentation and proof of certain situations at the time of the crisis, so you can plan to capture them when they occur.
Open the lines of communication early with facility management responsible for each and every venue you’ve contracted for your event. Discuss with them the potential risks you’ve identified, especially those specific to your event or sport. Each facility should have in place an emergency management plan and should be willing to discuss them with you in detail.
The US Department of Homeland Security offers a free, online risk self-assessment tool for security assessments at stadiums, arenas, racetracks, convention centers, lodging facilities and other event venues, called the Risk Self-Assessment Tool (RSAT). RSAT provides facility managers a means for identifying, evaluating and mitigating threats and vulnerabilities based on both natural and man-made disasters through a Self-Assessment Risk Report identifying existing security and protection strengths and areas of vulnerability and providing details on relevant security and protection measures. A Benchmark report also provides insight on how a particular facility stacks up when compared to others of similar size, capacity and use.
Another resource available to venue management is the National Fire Protection Association’s Guide to Premises Security (NFPA 730), which describes practices for addressing and minimizing security vulnerabilities to life and property. Ask your host facilities if they comply with the guidelines recommended in NFPA 730; while not mandated, voluntary compliance can provide a measure of assurance that your event participants and attendees will be protected.
Reach out to first responders, municipal officials, local emergency management and other site-specific entities with which contact and coordination may be required in the event of a crisis. Create a directory with important contact names, areas of responsibility, mobile numbers and email addresses and include in your crisis management plan.
The Crisis Management and Communications Team
Well in advance of your event, appoint a crisis team leader. This will be the point person to whom all staff will report and through whom all decisions and messaging are to be vetted. Then develop your crisis management and communications team, including key facility contacts, as well as operations, IT, legal, medical and public relations. If you are using volunteers, a volunteer leader should be identified and included in your planning, as they may be looked upon by fellow volunteers and participants for direction and information in a crisis situation.
Determine who your crisis spokesperson will be and choose carefully; this person should be different, if possible, from your crisis team leader (who will be busy leading and directing the team during the actual crisis). Your spokesperson will be the face of your event to participants, to the media and to the general public, should be accessible and should be skilled in public speaking, establishing credibility with the media and projecting calm and confidence. Consider the value of advance media training for your spokesperson, to help ensure the right messages are delivered the right way at the right time.
Assign someone to focus on the important task of monitoring national and local media outlets, social media feeds and other information sources and reporting relevant alerts, information or warnings to the crisis team leader. Google Alerts offers a no-cost and effective tool; based on search terms you identify, real-time email alerts are delivered with links to relevant content. Other useful sources include US State Department Travel Warnings (www.state.gov/travel), Centers for Disease Control Travel Health Notices (wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel) and the National Weather Service Active Alerts (weather.gov/alerts). In addition to these free resources, there are also paid services that can provide relevant information in real-time. Depending on the scope of your event, you may wish to contract for such paid services to keep your team leader informed of news that could impact your event and trigger your crisis management and communication plan.
Establish and regularly test the planned channels of internal communication for your crisis management team, such as SMS (text) messaging, e-mail, mobile telephone or battery-powered handheld radios. If possible, plan for both primary and secondary communication channels, in the event of failure of infrastructure, power or other services that would render your primary channel unusable. Create a team directory listing names, areas of responsibility and contact methods and numbers and require every team member to carry this information at all times during the event.
Consider the same for communications that will be used for notification, instructions and messages to event participants and other external audiences. If you’ve developed an event app and/or use social media or web pages to relay information before and during your event, plan use the same channels for crisis communications. Keep in mind, any single modality can fail or miss important audiences, so plan to use as many communications channels as possible and practical. As communications is a two-way street, also assign a team member to monitor and report on feedback and inbound messaging.
Your crisis management plan should also include the establishment of both primary on-site and alternate off-site crisis command centers with plans in place to equip them with technology and infrastructure necessary for managing internal and external communications.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to document, in both writing and with images, the details of an incident as it unfolds, both for insurance and legal risk management. Assign a team member (and train them in advance) for the task of documenting the crisis and the actions taken. Create a template of important details to capture; you can never document too much detail.
Be sure to practice your plan so you can work out roles, responsibilities and any kinks before the event. When your team is not expecting it, simulate a crisis that involves elements both in your plan and not in your plan. Ideally, do this both before the event and also once your team is on site before the event kicks off, to identify any special circumstances unique to the event venue at the time of your competition.
When Crisis Strikes
First, remain calm. You are prepared with a plan you have practiced and you’ve established a crisis management team with a leader and a spokesperson. Your team members each know their roles and assignments, each is in possession of the crisis management plan, contact directory, means of communications and assigned command center location. It’s time to implement your carefully-crafted plan and assess specific steps to address the crisis at hand. Because you’ve done the advance planning and preparation, you are well on your way to be able to issue communications to key audiences that will address the crisis head-on and provide important (and possibly life-saving) information and instructions.
At the earliest possible moment, begin outreach to relevant facility contacts, local authorities and emergency responders and pass on official information immediately to your event participants. Stay in constant touch with competitors, spectators and operations staff with regular updates as news is received and instructions developed. Be sure to communicate required event venue changes, schedule changes and the like using the multiple channels you’ve already established.
Respond immediately to media requests for interviews and do not evade or avoid their questions. Studies have shown that a response of “no comment” is usually interpreted as an admission of guilt or fault. You’ve prepared your spokesperson and should have confidence that the messaging will be on target.
After the Crisis
Continue your communications; when appropriate and confirmed by necessary officials or responders, declare an end to the crisis. Follow up by staying in touch with your key audiences after the crisis, especially with those directly affected. Keep the media informed of any updates in the situation.
Hold a formal debriefing with your crisis management team to review team and command center performance, communications issued, unforeseen problems or requirements that may have arisen, outcomes (both positive and negative) and the documentation gathered during the crisis. Finally, take the time to revise your crisis management plan to reflect lessons learned and to prepare you for the next time lightening may strike.