Crisis Communications for Schools Part 2: Defining a Crisis and a Crisis Plan

By Gerard Braud

For the purpose of our discussion in these articles, we will define a crisis this way:

StudentsGerardBraudA crisis is any incident that may seriously affect the safety, function, operation, reputation and/or revenue of any organization, public or private.

We will not debate or parse words as to whether what is called a crisis in this article might otherwise be called a situation, incident, event or any other synonym. Furthermore, we will divide our crises into two types: sudden crises and smoldering crises. A sudden crisis has a sudden flash point, such as a school shooting, tornado, fire, or explosion. A smoldering crisis might involve a labor dispute, issues of discrimination, and incidents of executive misbehavior such as embezzlement or sexual misconduct. In a smoldering crisis, details are known to internal decision makers, but not yet known to the public.

In our last article, we introduced you to the concept of the text messaging notification system and the crisis communications plan. While a text message notification system is intended for use in only a sudden crisis, the crisis communications plan can be used to communicate vital information for both a smoldering and a sudden crisis.

Confusion in “Crisis Plans” – Defining a Crisis Communications Plan

A great flaw in schools, in corporations, and in the world of emergency response is the generic use of the term “crisis plan” and crisis team. A crisis plan is not the same as a crisis communications plan. Each school and school system must operate with a collection of three unique plans that are executed by three unique teams, with each team being composed of individuals with specific skills and areas of expertise. Although the plans each serve a unique purpose, they are also designed to be executed in unison without any plan overriding or contradicting the directives of another.

The three types of plans needed are:

1) An Incident Command Plan, which is sometimes called the Emergency Response Plan, Coordinates police, fire and rescue. It is executed by the Incident Command Team.

2) A Risk Management Plan, which is sometimes called a Business Continuity Plan, ensures the components of the business operations are restored following a crisis, including identifying alternate facilities and supply chains. The Risk Management Plan is executed by the Risk Manager.

3) A Crisis Communications Plan, dictates prescribed measures for communicating accurate and timely information to key audiences, including parents, students, employees, the media and other stakeholders. It includes the components of public relations, media relations and stakeholder relations, and is executed by the Crisis Communications Team.

TulaneGerardBraudAll plans and all actions during a crisis should be managed by the Crisis Management Team.

Further confusion takes place in this area when the incident command plan makes reference to crisis communications. Usually this refers to details about radio systems and other technology used for interactive communications among emergency responders. This confusion must be avoided. We must emphasize that in this document, crisis communications is a function of public relations, media relations, employee relations, and social media management.

A sudden crisis, such as a school shooting or tornado would trigger all three plans. But a smoldering crisis such as an accusation of sexual harassment, would trigger the use of only the crisis communications plan, without causing a need to use the incident command plan or the risk management plan.

Your assignment for this article is to have a discussion with the leaders in your organization to identify the types of plans you have. If you think you have a crisis communications plan, I will be giving you come criteria in future articles by which you can determine if your plan is written properly.

You can also email a copy of your plan to me at gerard@braudcommunications.com and I will be happy to give you 15 minutes of free feedback.

GM Hires Crisis Communication Expert

By Gerard Braud

GM Crisis ExpertGM has hired a Crisis Communication Expert to help the company communicate their way out of a crisis surrounding their faulty ignition switches, according to headlines.

Why do companies hire crisis communications experts after a crisis?

Why don’t companies hire a crisis communications expert before they ever have a crisis?

Why don’t companies write crisis communications plans so that they can manage a crisis and the communications on their own?

The story of crisis communications is much like the movie Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray’s character, living the same story daily. That is because every day, another company announces they are hiring a crisis communications expert to magically make everything better after corporate executives allowed a crisis to happen.

Here is an open letter about crisis communication to corporate leaders:

Dear Corporate Executives,

Many of you make bad decisions every day. You put profits before people and when you do, you have the recipe for a disaster. GM executives decided not to spend 57-cents per car, in order to replace faulty ignition switches, because they thought it would cost too much. If they had spent the money, then:

  • People would not have died
  • A crisis would not have happened
  • The company’s reputation would not have been damaged
  • The company would not be paying untold millions to fight or settle cases
  • The company would not be getting grilled by congress
  • The head of GM would not be the butt of jokes for every late night talk show

Corporate executives should hire a crisis communication expert before a crisis happens.

Corporate leaders should hire a crisis communication expert to make sure their company has a properly written crisis communications plan.

Corporate leaders should stop relying on someone with a spreadsheet to make decisions about revenue that will later damage the company’s reputation.

Corporate leaders should hire a crisis communications expert to be the cynic at the table. That way, spreadsheet decisions do not lead to revenue decisions that have short-term gains and eventually cause long-term damage to both reputation and revenue.

Corporate executives should commit to protecting their reputation and revenue by having a crisis communication plan that guides their decision making before a crisis happens, during a crisis, and after a crisis

Lesson 11: Test Your Security Team During Your Crisis Communications Drill

By Gerard Braud

CrisisDrillGerardBraudWhile working with crisis communications clients, I provide a “first critical statement” template.  This template is intended to be read to the media, emailed to employees, and posted to the web in the first hour of a crisis when little is known about the emerging crisis. Some companies that operate facilities that have no spokespeople on site, but that have a security guard at the front gate. I’ve suggested that the template is simple enough that a security guard could go through low-level media training and be taught to deliver the message if media showed up at the front gate.

Amazingly and predictably, executives, in a semi-confidential and ultra condescending way, will say, “Have you met those people? They can’t be trusted with that!”

My response is, “Well, you gave ‘em a gun.”

While some security companies employ highly trained security professionals, others employ people with skills equal to a day laborer. Some are taught to simply check badges and passes at a guard gate. Many have little education, poor verbal skills, and they come to work with a power attitude they developed when a badge was bestowed upon them.

Regardless of their skill level, three things are true:

1) If a crisis happens, chances are they will encounter the media and may be the first person the media approaches with cameras and questions.

2) If there is a chance for a real life media encounter, then they need to be an active part of your crisis communications drill.

3) They can be media trained to deliver the first critical statement. I’ve done it successfully many times.

As you plan your crisis communications drill scenario, let your mock media team know that testing the security team is an important part of the drill. Your mock media team should be reasonably assertive without being aggressive with the security personnel.

crisisdrillgerardbraud2The goal is to record on video tape what the guards do and say. Guards generally all do the same thing. Some instinctively say, “No comment.” Others verbally and forcefully tell the mock media that they cannot be on the site or that they will be arrested, even when the mock media are standing safely and legally on the public right of way. Many security guards feel a need to put their hands on the camera lens to block the view of the camera. Some try to physically push and escort mock reporters away.

It is somewhat comical from my standpoint because they do all the things they’ve ever seen other guards do in any bad television situation.

Security guards often are the proverbial worst first impression. What they say can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion.

Such behavior sends a message to the public that the company has done something wrong and that they have something to hide.

Remember, if a drill is your opportunity to mess up in private, so behaviors can be addressed and corrected, challenging the security team in your drill is important.

Furthermore, a low-level media training class needs to be created to teach these guards how they appear to the public when they act inappropriately with the media. They must be taught to politely instruct the media where to park. Next guards must be taught how to ask the media for credentials and a business card so the appropriate media contact in the company can be called. The guards also need to be taught a verbal script. This may be, “How can I help you?” “If you’ll provide me with your media credentials and a business card I’ll be glad to call someone who can speak with you.”

Entergy drill Gerard Braud 1When the guards are asked casual questions by either real or mock reporters, they need to respond, “My responsibilities are confined to maintaining security at this entrance, but I’m sure someone from the company will be able to answer all of your questions shortly, so if you will, please bare with me while I tend to may assigned duties, you should be hearing from someone soon.”

It wouldn’t hurt to have a printed statement at the entrance for the guard to hand out.

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Make sure your security guards make a good first impression and that they are included in every crisis communications drill.

 

Lesson 10: Mock Media in Your Face at Your Crisis Communication Drill: Six Great Tips

By Gerard Braud

DSC_0159A real crisis is a pressure cooker and your crisis communications drill should replicate that. The pressure causes the media to be intense and often abrupt. The media may appear hostile. You will see similarities between media and sharks that sense blood in the water. Your crisis communications drill must duplicate that.

Here are six ways to do that.

1) Television cameras are intimidating, so make sure your mock media team has real television cameras to record each mock news conference. When your spokesperson or team of spokespeople enter the room for their mock news conference, have at least one camera person in their face with the camera as they enter. Get realistically and uncomfortably close. Make it real

2) Still photographers are also a part of real crises, so have a few of them in the room making noise with their shutters, setting off distracting flashes with each photo. Have them move about the room capturing the spokespeople from various angles.

3) During a real crisis, chances are your cell phone and desk phone would be ringing constantly as reporters try to get the inside scoop before their competition gets it. Therefore in a crisis communication drill, set up a phone bank of at least five people, with at least five fake personalities and fake names for each.

Personality #1 – A member of the local media

Personality #2 – A member of the national media

Personality #3 – A local mayor, councilperson or county official

Personality #4 – A state regulatory agency or state legislator

Personality #5 – A citizen with a host of fears and concerns

IMG_2621I give each personality a script containing likely questions they would ask and we schedule realistic calls at realistic intervals in a realistic sequence.

The challenge here is to force your communicators to stay on task to issue news releases in one hour or less of the onset of the crisis, while letting most calls roll to voice mail or passing their phone off to an assistant who can log the calls without answering any questions.

4) Media are not polite to one another during a real crisis, so they should not be polite to one another in your crisis communications drill. During your mock news conferences, let your mock reporters ask realistic questions simultaneously. Let them try to out shout one another. Force your spokesperson to take control of the news conference and the reporters by calling on specific reporters and recognizing questions at their discretion. This type of practice is invaluable.

5) Do your homework before the drill to know what previous crises are like skeletons in the closet of the organization being drilled. Nothing makes a spokesperson look like a deer in the headlights like asking a question based on serious facts. Just this week in a drill I did this to a spokesperson, when I quoted the company’s past news releases and past news articles about recent layoffs, losses in stock value, and the $511 Million spent for repairs at their facility featured in the drill. The kicker is a nugget I found in a news article about the company replacing a part which actually failed during the scenario of the drill. Having Google at your finger tips on an iPad or iPhone is amazing. Real reporters would do it to you, so in your crisis communications drill, your mock reporters must duplicate this behavior.

6) Fake live shots are now faster and easier than ever, because of iPads and iPhones (or the smart phone of your choice.) In a real crisis, a serious news conference might be carried live on television, followed by a live report from the reporter covering the story. To duplicate this, after every mock news conference I use the video feature on my iPad to record me doing a fake live report. I then hand the iPad to the crisis communication media monitoring team and let them see within seconds what I would have said if I were real media and this were a real event.

Braud Crisis Plans_6113Many executives admit that managing the crisis is the easy part, but managing the media is the tough part of a crisis. The truth is, most organizations spend more time, more money, and dedicate more people to emergency response then they do to crisis communications. Hence, if you dedicate more time, money and people to practicing and preparing for your crisis communications, you will have less difficulty with the media.

Each organization should conduct media training at least once a year for all spokespeople and again prior to every news conference. Spokespeople should include public relations professionals, subject mater experts, and top executives.

The great flaw is that most organizations treat media training as though it is a bucket list item that can be checked off and forgotten about. The key is maintaining and improving training based on modern communications.

Lesson 9: How to Keep Your Crisis Communications Drill Realistic?

By Gerard Braud

Entergy Drill Gerard braudWhat a nice complement I received today after a crisis communications drill with a nuclear power plant and four government agencies. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness thanked our mock media team for the intense questioning and realism of our news mock conferences.

“I participated in a crisis drill last week and the news conferences were kind of a joke,” he said. “They had a bunch of students asking questions and it just got silly. Today felt like the real thing.”

Wow #CrazyFlattered #KeepingItReal

The last thing you want in your crisis communication drill is for people to be silly and treat it as though it is a game. My drills are so serious that I’ve successfully made spokespeople emotionally break down and cry at the podium and on two occasions. People involved have been fired because the drill exposed their complete incompetence in their jobs.

The purpose of a crisis communications drill is to test your skills and abilities so that if necessary, they can be modified after the drill in order to improve performance during a real crisis.

DSC_0011Here are five tips to keep it real:

1) Build your crisis scenario around something that is highly likely, especially if people within your organization are in denial about how likely the scenario is to happen. Such a scenario will immediately send a feeling of dread over many drill participants. It is helpful if the facilitator can immediately and repeatedly bring the roll players to the point at which they mutter, “Oh sh*t.” This emotional trigger is just one of many emotional triggers that you want to employ. In a real crisis, emotions of dread, fear, panic and anxiety are all brought to the surface. It is the job of your facilitator to bring those emotions to the forefront of a drill.

2) Make the drill scenario big enough that a real crisis of this nature would bring out the media, which in the case of the drill, forces you to have several mock news conferences to test your spokespeople. The folks who role play as mock media need to be smart and mature, and capable of asking realistic questions that realistically challenge your spokespeople.

3) Judge your crisis communications team on how well they followed their crisis communications plans. The plans I write are usually about 50 pages long and are designed to be read and executed in sequential order so that nothing is forgotten in the way of communications. Too many flawed plans are just six to ten pages long, they only state standard operating procedures and for the most part, they are useless during your crisis. The 50 page plan I customize for my clients can get you flawlessly through the first two hours of your crisis, with directions for subsequent communications beyond two hours if needed.

4) Social media is a part of the real world and it needs to be a part of your drill. The facilitator and/or mock media role players should inject rumors, photos, videos and posts that might appear on social media if the event were real.

5) Realistically bother the heck out of as many people as possible with phone calls. In a real crisis the media and worried members of the community would be calling employees wanting information. I like to have a phone bank with at least five people who each play five personalities. I provide them with a list of phone numbers of people they should be calling periodically during the drill.

The bottom line is your crisis communications drill is designed to be your preparation for a real event. Make your drill every bit as realistic as an actual crisis event.

 

 

Lesson 8: Which Team is in Charge During Your Crisis Drill?

By Gerard Braud

Gerard Braud * 15I worked in drills in which I facilitate everything on behalf of the crisis communications team, while also developing the scenario for the drill. I’ve also worked in drills in which the emergency manager selects the drill scenario and acts as lead facilitator. Simultaneously, I facilitate only the cascading events dealing with internal and external communications, as well as managing the mock media.

The fact is, I don’t care which team is in charge, as long as every team gets to experience the realistic anxiety and decision making necessary for everyone to learn.

A crisis communications drill is an opportunity for all teams to execute their respective plans to test their readyness, while also making sure that each team can coexist with the others, both in a drill and in a real crisis.

The bottom line is just make sure someone sets the course to have at least one drill a year. Remember, a drill allows you to mess up in private so you never mess up during a real crisis.

Lesson 7: Who Should Know Details Before Your Crisis Communications Drill?

By Gerard Braud

Braud Crisis Plans_6113No one knows the hour or the day when a real crisis will strike, nor do they know how or when various events will cascade during the crisis. Your crisis communications drill needs to simulate as much of this as possible.

In a crisis communications drill, chances are you need to let everyone involved know at least the date of the drill. The date is the only piece of information that I ever share with people involved in the crisis drills I facilitate.

I may take the easy path and run a drill for three hours from 9 a.m. until noon, or I may let the crisis begin to unfold as people are in the middle of their commute to work. Sometimes I launch the drill as parents are juggling the morning rituals of getting their kids up and off to school.

Since real crisis events seldom happen at a convenient time, your crisis communications drill should duplicate and simulate real life challenges.

In addition to keeping the starting time a secret, I never share details about the drill scenario with anyone other than other drill facilitators.

Secrecy is important because you don’t want anyone taking extra precautions in the days or weeks before the drill. The drill is designed to measure everyone’s preparedness and response at a specific moment in time. In other words, if a crisis happened now, how prepared would everyone be?

After the drill you should be prepared to modify your crisis communications plan. 

Lesson 6: Who Should Participate in Your Crisis Communications Drill?

By Gerard Braud

Trainwreck CEOVarious teams within your organization can organize crisis drills. If no one else within your company, government agency or non-profit is organizing an annual crisis drill, then individuals within the communications department can take the lead to organize a drill.

Ideally, to get a well rounded drill you want to test your public relations team and their ability to craft and disseminate effective communications in a timely manner. Additionally, Emergency Managers and Incident Commanders may be called upon to participate in any type of drill designed to test emergency response to a rapidly evolving crisis such as a workplace shooting or fire. If the crisis drill scenario involves the disruption of production or disruption to the supply chain or any upset at a facility, the risk management team should also be part of the planning and execution of the crisis drill.

Together, these three teams must work to each perform their assigned task in a prescribed amount of time.  They must work to support one another with shared information and shared decision-making, all under the supervision of the Crisis Management Team.

A drill is designed to replicate an actual event. Held on a clear sunny day, a crisis drill prepares you and your organization for your darkest day. If you discover on a sunny day that members of the various teams are not functioning well together, you have time to correct the bad behavior or bad decision making before a real crisis happens.

9thWard-KatrinaVersary-Media_0406There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes it is possible to test just the crisis communications team and the leadership team during a drill that simulates a smoldering crisis, rather than a sudden crisis. For example, instead of simulating a workplace shooting, build a scenario centered around a smoldering issue like executive behavior or discrimination. Such a drill will test the ethical decision making of your leaders. It will test their commitment to communicate pro-actively about such an event, and it will test the communications team for their ability to word-smith a perfect communiqué for what is often the most difficult of all crises.

Keep in mind that a smoldering crisis does not trigger the incident command plan or the risk management plan. This also proves once again that a crisis communications plan is always an important tool and document to have because it must guide your communications activity with other teams and also independent of other teams and their plans.

 

Lesson 5: Equal Parts of Your Crisis Drill: Add Crisis Communication

By Gerard Braud 

DSC_0002Too many crisis drills are lopsided. They are often organized by Emergency Managers who primarily want to measure the decision making and response time of those who must address the physical aspects of a crisis. Often missing from these drills is the realistic aspects of “pesky” reporters “getting in everybody’s way” and wanting interviews.

In a real crisis, there will be many things happening at once and therefore any drill you conduct should have equal parts of all of the real aspects.

If the drill is to simulate a fire and explosion, equal parts should be planned and executed by the Incident Command Team, the Risk Management Team, and the Crisis Communications Team.

Because the media will be involved in covering many crises that you could experience, mock media need to be a part of your crisis drill. During the drill, the facilitator should plan the scenario in such a way that there are at least two opportunities for news conferences to test the skills of spokespeople. Those mock news conferences can be done either indoors or outdoors — it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that they are realistic.

If the drill centers on a fire or explosion scenario, chances are in a real situation, media would be at your door step in 30-60 minutes.  This means your crisis drill should be organized in such a way that a spokesperson must deliver the first message within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis. My first critical statement template is a perfect format for delivering a few basic facts in the early hour of a crisis. Download a free copy here by using the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN.

During the drill, a second news conference should be held prior to the start of the second hour of the event.

Braud extraTo make the drill even more realistic, create a pool of mock reporters who sit at a phone bank and make phone calls to various individuals within your organization during the course of the drill. Don’t over do it, but make it realistic, just as real reporters would do.

When I facilitate a crisis drill, I add two additional layers of realism. The first is to use my iPad to record fake live shots at appropriate intervals during the drill. I then hand off my iPad to players in the drill so they can view what the media would actually be saying during the crisis. My second layer of realism is to inject fake social media posts to simulate what the public would be saying on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Drills should be designed to replicate realistic behaviors and responses by all of the same people who would be involved in a response to the actual event. Please don’t leave communications out of the mix. Please add an equal mix of all aspects of the crisis to make your drill more realistic with the intent of making all of your role-players well rounded and professional.

Lesson 4: Test Your Crisis Communication Speed

By Gerard Braud

Braud Crisis Drill_5723*How quickly can you get approval for and issue a statement to the media, your employees and other key stakeholders during a crisis? Your crisis communication plan should clearly spell out what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

It greatly disturbs me to see that some companies and government agencies think five hours from the onset of a crisis is an acceptable time frame to respond within. It disturbs me even more to know that some organizations think tomorrow or the day after is soon enough. Just this week, while speaking to a group of public relations professionals in Washington, D.C. several of the attendees said it often takes their organizations one to two days to approve a news release.

Wow! It is 2013 and we live in a world where social media gives details about a crisis the second it happens. Speed is important.

In every crisis communication plan I write, it states that the first communications should happen in one hour or less. Admittedly, this is about 59 minutes too long, but is likely a realistic amount of time in a corporate setting where statements must be written by the public relations team and approved by executives before being released.

My key to speed is the use of a First Critical Statement. It is a pre-written, fill-in-the-blank document that allows an organization to release a few basic facts until more is known. The goal is to control the flow of accurate information rather than allowing rumors to spread on social media and speculation to run rampant among the media.

(Download a free copy with this link. Enter this coupon code to get it as a free gift: CRISISCOMPLAN )

If your crisis communications plan has this template in it, you should be using it in your crisis communications drill.

Katrina Media_0318Your crisis communications drill, while allowing you to test your crisis communications plan, allows you to test your public relations department and their ability to gather facts quickly. The team must fill out the First Critical Statement, get it approved by executives, then release it to the world. It also allows you to test your executives, who must be taught that time is critical and that major rewrites can slow the communications process.

Yesterday’s article referred to feeding little bits of information to the media, just as you would serve a buffet. Following that analogy, the First Critical Statement is the salad.

As the crisis communications drill continues to unfold, your crisis communications plan should dictate that by the start of the second hour of your crisis, a more detailed statement should be released to the media, your employees, and other key audiences.

Katrina Media_0327The plans I write for my clients may have over 100 of these pre-written statements in the addendum of the plan. These are also fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice documents written on a clear sunny day that can be quickly modified and released to the key audiences. They can also be pre-approved by executives on a clear sunny day. Such pre-approval eliminates approval delays on the day of your crisis.

Your crisis communications drill allows you to again test the speed at which the documents are modified and the speed at which they are approved.

Speed is critical when you need to communicate in a crisis. Your crisis communications drill helps you to perfect that.