March 1, 2012

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Worst-Case Scenario

A Communications Plan Can Avert Disaster

Peri Kinder

March 1, 2012

At the height of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Salt Lake City Communications Director Karen Hale received a phone call telling her the city was experiencing its own oil crisis. Tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil were flowing into Red Butte Creek, contaminating waterways, endangering wildlife and putting the public at risk.

Hale knew residents needed to be alerted to the situation, the media had to be contacted, Chevron officials needed get on the scene and city officials had to go into full crisis mode.

Luckily, there was a plan.

“When you get a call that there’s an oil spill in Salt Lake, it just doesn’t register,” Hale says. “With any kind of disaster, it takes you by surprise, so having tools at hand and in place makes a huge difference.”

The city’s crisis communications plan had been devised long before it was implemented during the oil spill. And just like actors in a movie, each person involved followed their script to ensure the emergency was handled effectively.

City leaders met at the public safety building to gather information and decide what would happen next. Phone numbers were activated so the media and public could call and get information. A press conference was set up and the media alerted. Reverse 911 calls went to residents living near the creek and, before the weekend was over, volunteers were passing out flyers, inviting residents to a town meeting to discuss the oil spill.

Officials kept in constant contact with Chevron, sharing and receiving information that was used to expedite a solution to the situation, and Chevron immediately pledged to take full responsibility for the leak, bringing in crews from outside Utah to clean up the affected areas.

Salt Lake City already had social media sites in place and these pages were utilized to send information to the public. Information was disseminated regarding temporary lodging for those evacuated from their homes, the health risks of the spill, the extent and cause of the leak, and regular updates to the community.

The crisis communications plan for the city involved leaders from almost every department. Public services, the city attorney, economic development, the mayor’s office, emergency services and public utilities were departments heavily affected by the spill. And they each had a role in creating successful communications.

Regularly, city officials participate in workshops and sem-
inars to stay up on the latest developments in crisis comm-unications. The city holds regular drills and revises the plan frequently when new situations arise or technology is updated.

Josh Ewing is an expert when it comes to developing an efficient crisis plan. He was the communications director for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games and had to plan for any contingency, especially because the country was already on high-alert following the 9/11 tragedy just months before the Games.

A communications plan for the Games was prepared, rehearsed, adapted, practiced, rehearsed again and changed many times as new scenarios emerged. Although things went well during the Games, the crisis plan was implemented one time for a brief period when the anthrax sensors went off at the airport.

“It was a false positive,” Ewing says, “but a late night press conference was scheduled. It was well-planned and we were completely prepared. We had to have our game together. It seems that a lot of time when you plan for a crisis, it won’t happen because the organization will have done an entire risk assessment.”

Ewing is now employed with Love Communications and helps companies develop their own crisis plans. Whether a business has 10 employees or 1,000, Ewing says a company should plan for every risk they can think of—and develop a communications outline to ensure contact with employees, customers, the public and media, if necessary.

Where to Start
The first step to creating a plan is to have someone in the company receive communications training. If a company has fewer than 500 employees, Ewing suggests the PR specialist should attend the training. For companies with more than 500 employees, he says the CEO and vice-presidents should also be included. For a small business, only the president/owner will need to be trained.

Because a company’s reputation is on the line during a crisis, a breakdown in communications could be devastating. After having the right people trained, companies should start listing all the things that could go wrong. “They need to think about what could happen in their line of business that would require them to communicate in a way they don’t want to. Because that means something negative happened,” Ewing says.

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