Friday, June 21, 2013

A Communicator's Worst Day: Communicating Fatalities

Nothing in the discipline of crisis communications is more important or more difficult than communicating to the public that people have died. This is also the place where I've seen many organizations freeze as the gravity of the situation weighs down the company. It's critical to get this right and there are two basic principles that you can apply if this sad duty falls on your shoulders.

Don't delay a formal announcement
The news that a fatality has occurred should come from the company as soon as you know someone has lost their life. The only detail you need to release at this moment is the fact that an employee (or a contractor) has died. This is not the time to release names, details of the accident or any other specific information that can come later.

You need to make this acknowledgement because it changes the nature of the story. For example, if you have a large plant that has an explosion, it will make news. Explosions are newsworthy as reporters love fire. But an explosion that kills someone is a completely different story with a vastly different impact on people. Given that all journalism is about how events impact people, you can see how a fatality changes the story.

If the job of the communications team is to help key stakeholders and the news media understand the context of an adverse event, this is the most vital piece of context to communicate. It is also an unfortunate reality that social media will be swirling with news of a fatality before you issue your announcement. If you delay, people will assume you're hiding something. The fact that social media or first responders may have communicated news of the death or posted photos does not release you from the obligation to make the announcement, too.

Don't ignore the obvious
Is a medical examiner's or coroner's vehicle at your facility? If so, the media doesn't need to have you tell them someone's dead. Those trucks don't just drive around hoping to come across a corpse. If the coroner is there, someone's dead. Not confirming the obvious makes you look incompetent.

I've seen crisis plans that require that a doctor declare death before an announcement can be made. In some US states, death isn't "official" until the coroner or M.E. declares it so. I've also seen companies treat this as some form of technicality so that they can delay communicating for as long as possible. I'm not sure why, maybe they're waiting for them to be "not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead" before issuing the release. In these cases, time is not your ally.

One more thing that's important for communicators to keep in mind when a tragedy strikes. In a lot of cases, the leadership of the facility has a personal relationship with the deceased. They're friends, they may play on the softball team together. Maybe they went to school together. If that's the case, then your leadership may be in shock and unable to rationally or quickly make the right call. Talk through this with your management ahead of time. Have clear protocols. Understand that people will be hurting. Get as much room to do what you need to do independent of approvals and stick to your plan.

The goal of this post isn't to rush you into communicating. It's to prevent you or someone on your team from making an awful day worse.

Bill Salvin

Monday, June 3, 2013

Crisis Response on Twitter: 3 Keys to the First Hour

Like it or not, Twitter is now the de facto place people go for breaking news. It is where the majority of journalists will find out about an incident at your organization. It is where people who saw, heard or felt the incident will let the world know of their experience. It's also the first place you need to post information on what's happened. Your response on Twitter during the first hour will set the tone for the rest of the response.

I think there are three keys to success on Twitter during the first 60 minutes of incident response.

Within 15 Minutes: Acknowledge.

Just one sentence will suffice. Here is the Tweet Southwest Airlines posted shortly after one of its planes went off the end of the runway at Chicago's Midway Airport on April 26, 2011.
“Gathering details regarding the event (at Midway) please standby for more info.”
Simple, clear, responsive. If you can get this first Tweet out faster, do it. 15 minutes is good. Ten minutes is better. And don't be afraid to send this Tweet out more than once during the first 30 minutes.

15 - 45 Minutes: Respond.

Is there a meeting place for employees? Have authorities been notified? Are you accounting for your people? Do you want anyone to do anything? Is there a phone number to call? As soon as you know what those actions are, let people know what's happening. This is how you establish yourself as a credible source for the entire response.

This Tweet, sent about two minutes after the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was sent by well-known runner Josh Cox. Although he isn't an official from the Boston Athletic Association, he's a credible source who offered timely information during a crisis. (Note: the timestamp on this tweet auto-converted to Pacific Time, 11:51 am. It was sent at 2:51 pm Eastern, two minutes after the explosions.)

The official Twitter account for the marathon sent out the first post-bombing Tweet came just under two hours after the event, at 4:47 pm Eastern time.  It was a very helpful Tweet for runners and their families with the new location where people could meet up. This is exactly the kind of helpful information you can Tweet in crisis that is helpful to your stakeholders.

45 - 60 Minutes: Empathize. 

In most cases, you will have a pretty good idea that people have been injured or killed in an incident. You may not know any other details than there has been an injury or a death. But you can Tweet a general statement of empathy for those impacted by the event. Go beyond the boiler plate "Our thoughts and prayers, blah blah blah..." that has become devoid of any actual empathy. Express genuine emotion for those impacted by the event. What might just be a really long day at the office for you will be an event that will change some people's lives forever. Be worthy of that moment.

This is just the first hour and just Twitter. You still have all the other tasks and responsibilities, too. Issue an initial statement within an hour. Update your website (with a dark site or a crisis response site like PIER). Monitor what's being said on social media, get your team together, get connected with police, fire or other external agencies that are part of the response. There's a lot to do and it's likely you won't do it perfectly. That's ok.

People won't remember the small imperfections, but they will remember a strong response during the first hour of a crisis. Twitter is key to getting out of the gate strongly and giving your company the best possible change to succeed throughout the crisis.

Bill Salvin