Note: A brief introduction, since this is the first guest post (of many, we hope) from our friend and colleague Thomas McKenzie. Mac isn’t just a PIO, who spends a LOT of time in the field, but is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite Public Information Assist Team, which is a component of the National Strike Force. PIAT is who federal on-scene coordinators call on when things REALLY go wrong, to take care of the gamut of crisis and risk communication during critical incidents. Thomas and the PIAT’s work has been in the blog before – de-briefs on critical incidents, tips for successfully conducting community relations and job aids for professional communicators. Thomas is a vital resource for what “doers” are experiencing in the field and he’s one heckuva nice guy. Enjoy! ~ brandon
So, the Bad Thing happened. Obviously you didn’t want it, but you were ready for it.
First, you got ahead of the Beast and stayed there. You urged leadership to fill the information gap that began to yawn in the hour immediately following the Bad Thing with whatever facts were available (and releasable), instead of sitting on their hands waiting for all the right answers to materialize. The public’s “need to know” was met.
Two, you called a press conference only when you truly had something important to say, an action that underscored the importance of your message. Your well-prepped spokesperson had the freedom to admit that, “Yes, something happened and we’re sorry. Our first concerns are for the welfare of the evacuees and the safety of the responders. Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know, here’s why we don’t know it, and when we know more we have a plan to share it with you.” By expressing regret in honest, unrehearsed sound bites that absolutely did not rhyme with “thoughts and prayers” your spokesperson came across as human. They even wore the appropriate attire, bless their heart.
Three, your long-standing relationships with local reporters paid off. Yes, they were painfully honest. That’s their job. But they were kind, focusing the story more on your company’s lightning quick response to the Bad Thing than the unfortunate circumstances that led up to it. Fortunately, there were no injuries. While a precautionary evacuation of the immediate area was necessary, it was so well orchestrated and communicated that the members of the impacted community didn’t balk too loudly about spending a few days at a nearby hotel. There was almost nothing on social media to indicate otherwise. You know this because your team was busy tracking down a long list of possible hash tags, sniffing for any signs of concerns that weren’t being heard. Leadership told the public that the welfare of the evacuees was a concern, and then they demonstrated it. No amount of risk communication will save you if your company isn’t willing to put money to mouth and follow through.
You stuck to the plan, dealt with the resulting chaos and, all things considered, were able to skillfully defuse what could have been a Very Ugly Grenade in full view of the media and the public. You passed the sniff test and survived 48 hours of total madness. Sure, there were a few lingering issues and bumps scattered throughout, but as is common in today’s abbreviated news cycle, something else happened that took the hot spotlight of attention off your organization as it transitioned out of the emergency phase, leaving you and your staff to provide updates of the recovery as needed.
Good job! What now? Glad you asked!
Before you fly home, before you get side-tracked by pressing obligations on the work front, before anything else happens, sit down and make sense of your notes before the details get fuzzy. (You took copious notes, right?) And as you do so, ask three important questions:
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- What are we gonna do different the next time this happens?
Get your people together as soon as you can and document their input. Close the doors and hold a hot wash. In my years of response (and exercise) experience, here’s what usually makes the list of positives:
Everyone came together… so much expertise in one room… willingness of everyone to work together… the information flow was good… leadership empowered the PIO to act quickly… Community Relations worked closely with evacuees so they knew when to return home… press conference went well.
These are great, but let’s address the three from which we can really learn: Information flow, PIO empowerment and media interaction.
If your information flow is hampered, nothing else will go right. Your purpose is to communicate timely and relevant information directly to people affected by the incident. The moment you fail to stay ahead of the Beast, you’ll spend the rest of your time and energy chasing after it. You will no longer be the first and best source of information.
You, the PIO, should be empowered to carry out your leadership’s communication objectives. Once you’ve had that initial brief, once you’ve taken the temperature, tempo and tone of the media and gleaned the public’s perception of the Bad Thing and begun drafting a public information plan to addresses the scope of the event (one that includes a long term plan of attack that can be carried out even after your team has demobilized), you’ll find you’ve got some breathing room.
Lessons learned are a valuable tool. They prevent you from having to re-invent the wheel or spend precious brainpower in the heat of crisis. I coached an exercise once where a (self-professed) green PIO pulled his most recent hot wash notes out of his go-bag, smoothed them out and taped them to the status board. “Here’s what right looks like. Let’s move toward this.” Here are the mistakes I made last time. Let’s avoid them.
The media interaction is summarized above, so consider: Don’t have a press conference out of habit (“Well, we had one yesterday…”) especially if you have nothing new to report. Don’t ignore overly persistent reporters out of spite (“Oh, I know him, he’s annoying. He never stops calling.” Huh! I wonder why!). Kill naysayers with kindness, leaving them no room to complain. Avoid the numbers game: go ugly early, track everything, update rapidly changing figures twice a day to avoid confusion but triple check everything before it goes out the door. Lastly, don’t shy away from visuals. Demonstrate your company’s progression from crisis mode to recovery with imagery. An honest picture with an unbiased, AP-solid cutline is worth a thousand words.
Here’s a short list of deltas, things that always seem to go pear-shaped, to compliment the list of positives above:
The JIC was located in a cramped hotel room down the street from the ICP… responders in the field weren’t prepped to speak… we got too wrapped around tech.
If I had a nickel for every time this was a point of failure, well, I’d have a lot of nickels: The JIC needs to be located immediately adjacent to the ICP. No: not in the ICP or not halfway across town. Yes: a room upstairs, an adjoining trailer, a room across the hall, or even an idling tour bus across the street with ample wall space for the sheer amounts of releasable information the Bad Thing is going to generate. Embrace poster sized Post-its. You’re gonna need ample work space for safety, power outlets for laptops and at least one dedicated landline. This is your public information hub. Don’t cripple it with poor planning assumptions: “I’m sure one card table in the corner will suffice…”
If you aren’t prepared to have your responders or contractors in the field talk to the media for whatever reason (hint, you probably should), then at a bare minimum arm them with a few generic talking points about their roles and a piece of paper with the phone number to the Joint Information Center.
Lastly, keep it simple. There’s an alphabet soup of information management platforms available for tracking data within a response. They’re all useful, and they serve a purpose. Just don’t get wrapped around the axle. You need to hit the ground running when the Bad Thing happens, not waste valuable hours waiting for passwords to be mailed, waiting for the IT guy to unravel or make sense of a compatibility issue, waiting for someone to locate a printer, waiting for your partner agencies to be given access and basic user training.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to run a response via email or phoning it in, missing out on the opportunity to work face-to-face with your PIO network and earn those lessons learned in person.