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Journalists talk about crisis communications

I love a good media panel; those rare occasions when reporters gather in front of an audience to talk about their craft.

Reporters, you see, have an opinion on everything and usually an informed, entertaining one at that. However, when they report the news, journalists cant express their own personal opinions the best you can hope for is an objective conclusion based on the facts.

But when they appear on a media panel, reporters are expected to offer opinions. They can let their hair down and say what they really think.

The CBC Radio Morning Show convenes a media panel on occasion (though Ive not heard one lately), and Out of the Fog on Rogers TV offers a weekly panel featuring reporters and editors from The Telegram. These electronic panels are interesting, but never exceed five to 10 minutes in duration. Consequently, panelists cant dig too deeply into a particular issue, or cover a wide range of topics.

Thats why I get excited whenever a live media panel is offered locally, as a luncheon or conference event. For these occasions, three or more journalists take turns speaking on a specific topic, then the floor is opened to questions from the audience. The talk can last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, with virtually no limit on the number or depth of topics discussed.

We had such a media panel on February 11, when the provincial chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) presented its annual media panel luncheon at the Holiday Inn.

The topic was Crisis Communications, and the panelists were Rob Antle of The Telegram, David Cochrane of CBC, and Linda Swain of VOCM. It was a candid, entertaining and even funny session, lasting more than 50 minutes and delving into a profusion of topics.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the March 2009 crash of Cougar Flight 491, and the breast cancer testing scandal at Eastern Health.

As a point of disclosure, I work in crisis communications and actually assisted in the response to Flight 491 (and wrote a little bit about it here). At no point, however, did the discussion directly involve me or my work.

The panelists opened with summary statements, which appear pretty much verbatim below. There is not space to use every word, so this is a compressed version. I hope I have captured the gist of it, and I beg the panelists forgiveness if they think I didnt.

David Cochrane opened the discussion. He said he had contemplated the subject since being invited to participate.

I am not an expert in crisis communications, he said. But I am an expert in knowing what I need as a reporter when covering something that falls into this sort of category. Ive done some research into effective crisis communications and Ive come to five things, five core principles that I want to see when Im dealing with a controversy or crisis. The five things are: maintain connectivity with the press and with the public, through us; be ready and accessible; show empathy; streamline the communications process; and remove dependencies on paper-based processes in other words, be nimble when it comes to releasing information to people like me, because we are largely impatient and have deadlines. I looked at these five principles and applied them against two of the bigger things that I covered professionally; one an example that was handled quite well, and the other quite badly.

One incident that was handled well was the Cougar crash, which was probably the single biggest crisis that Ive covered professionally (I will compare) Cougar against the five things I just mentioned:

Maintain connectivity Obviously there was chaos in the initial hours. Its not the sort of thing youre really equipped to deal with on a regular basis, but as things rolled out we had frequent newsers at regularly scheduled times, a very clear sense for the most part of when the next update might be and quickly, in response to the crisis, a structure developed which became useful.

In terms of being ready and accessible, I think that was done well, especially when Denis McGuire showed up. He was sort of the cowboy pro of disaster rescues, who came in at the end of it and became the main spokesperson.

Showing empathy We got that right off the top. Obviously we were dealing with a deeply personal crisis, from the people who worked at Cougar, through the general manager.

Streamlining the communications process We all had one spot where we could go for a regularly scheduled newser

Being nimble when it comes to releasing information McGuire really brought that. He was a very clear spokesperson and had the advantage of being emotionally detached from the disaster which, in terms of delivering factual information to people, was really good. The one thing that sticks out that didnt go so well, was the initial news conference, and the initial comments coming from Rick Burt at Cougar (who) spoke a lot about the emotion of it, which was obvious. He spoke for about 10 minutes but there was no clear, hard factual information

But for the most part, as a journalist, I felt that given the stakes that were there, given the enormity, tragedy and emotion of it, I thought it was a very well handled crisis response, from a communications perspective, in terms of meeting my needs as someone who is feeding a national radio/television network and the Internet, in real time.

Not so good: breast cancer testing scandal. And if anybody here was involved with this, then I apologize up front, but Im not here to make friends, I guess!

The maintain connectivity part just the whole apparatus around communications response, going back to the origins of this thing. Slow to come to terms with the scope of the problem and implement and stick with a clear communications plan. A bunker mentality started to set in, as news of this started to leak out. It seemed on the other side of it anyway that it was more about damage control and reputation mitigation rather than a clear owning up to the enormity of what they were dealing with.

Being ready and accessible late in the day newsers, late in the day news releases, spokesperson not available, cant talk about that specific health care issue, ministers sick, ministers off, ministers changing, CEOs quit, CEO I mean, my god!

Showing empathy There were definitely attempts on that point from the chair of the board, but given (the closed style of communications) it just didnt ring as sincere and that became a real image problem.

Streamlining communications It became bungled and bureaucratic. There was obviously tension between the Department of Health, and between the different boards, and that became problematic in getting clear information out.

Nimble, in terms of releasing information Didnt quite happen. Things got evasive. Things got combative. You had politicians getting involved and forcing people to put information out at 4:30 on a Friday, and when that became a fiasco they started fighting with each other.

Now, it wasnt an event-based thing like the Cougar crash, but when you look at how many people that affected and how many it touches, people like Donna Howell and Bev Green, and all these people who came in and took off their hair and testified, and who did the on-camera interviews with people like me and told deeply personal stories, they were far better and more responsive than this massive bureaucracy that was set up to protect their interests. And I think the great lessons coming out of that are just early disclosure and sticking with the communications plan. I know theres all kinds of topsy-turvy chaos at the top of these organizations. But that could have been handled far, far better by just putting out (information) on a very clear, factual basis, and coming up with a plan to mitigate the consequences of what had happened.

Next up was Linda Swain of VOCM News:

I keep thinking of it in terms of control. It seems to me that, a lot of times when there is a crisis, communications people are trying to wrest control, and sometimes, once the horse is out of the barn, you have lost control. It is too late. And I think that proper communications has to involve being ready for any scenario and having somebody ready to deal with the media at any time to get the information out. Were there to relate the information to the public and well get it whatever way we can, and were not going to wait four hours or a day or two weeks to get that information out there.

I was involved in a project one time with Labatt Breweries. They were involved in a mock crisis scenario where there had been some kind of (simulated) catastrophic disaster at the brewery down on Leslie Street, and they had called in certain members of the media and other people to do this mock disaster thing. And at the end of it there was a general assumption that the media would have found out about it through the cops or fire department we get a lot of our information that way. But I said to them, Look, you would have already lost control. We would have known about this long before. We probably get the call before the cops or the fire department. Oftentimes people will pick up their phone and call us to say theres a fire across the street, and well say, Have you called the fire department? and theyll say No Im calling VOCM.

So I said to them, Look where you are. Youre on Leslie Street. Youre a huge brewery. Everybody on Shea Heights has already called and told us whats going on. And well get it from them, if you guys havent told us whats happening yet, and so-and-so on Shea Heights tells us theres 14 fire trucks and flame shooting from the top of the building.

Because thats news. We have to report that. Everybodys seeing it. Theyre wondering whats going on. So you have to aware that you dont have complete control over the situation and you have to be able to respond properly to that.

Rob Antle of The Telegram spoke next:

Just briefly, what media need in terms of crisis situations accessibility is key. We need to talk with somebody, and we need to talk with a senior official, someone who knows whats going on. Nobody wants to see a mid-level manager come out and explain whats going on in a crisis situation. To use Cougar as an example I agree with Dave in how that was handled, I believe it was handled very well but these were people in charge and they were out there explaining what was going on.

Another thing from our standpoint, the business has changed a lot. Not to date myself but 10 years ago, when working for a daily newspaper, you had one deadline. Right now, with Internet and electronic media, its a 24-hour news cycle, and theres always deadlines We have a web site and we need to know now, the same as everyone else.

So Cougar, I thought, was handled very well. Thats my example of a crisis that was handled well. One that wasnt handled quite as well, that may be a bit of a surprise, was actually the 9-11 response here. The actual response in dealing with the passengers went off pretty well, all things considered. It was pretty seat of the pants but honestly, the sense I got from the government afterward was that it was largely successful because of the efforts of volunteers and the Red Cross. From a communications perspective it was I dont know if gong show is the way to put it, but it could have been done a lot better.

The reason I know this is because the communications and senior people sat down and did a debriefing on lessons learned afterward, which we then got ahold of through the paper, so a lot of what I tell you isnt really necessarily my opinion but that of people on the ground.

Theres a whole bunch of things that didnt happen but at the end of the day what it came down to was the lack of a plan. There was no communications director assigned to Emergency Measures at the time. There was a lack of emergency measures communications facilities there was nowhere to go. They found there were inappropriate restrictions on media access, resulting in misinformation getting out to the public. There was no inter-departmental or inter-agency communications. There was confusion over who should release information. Nobody knew who was in charge. There was one famous example where Andy Wells was going around to the media, and telling people to go out and take in a passenger, right, bring him to your house. Unfortunately all the passengers were wanted at Mile One so they could keep track of them. So Andy was out freelancing, and people in charge didnt know what was going on. And also, this is important from a PR perspective, there was an information void in St. Johns. No one knew who was in charge, no one knew who to talk to. That drove the international media to Halifax it all came down to planning. I checked back five years later and the planning still hadnt been done.

At this point, moderator Ivan Muzychka began a question and answer session that was lively, colourful, informative and easily as long as what youve read already. I shall save that to run as part two, a little later. The tail end of the discussion was a free-ranging exploration into a bunch of topics not related to crisis communications. I may use that material at a later date as well.

Finally, I do apologize for not posting as often as I should these last couple of weeks. I have two clients who are keeping me hopping, day and night, on projects with short deadlines. I am doing my best to meet those obligations, while stealing an occasional guilty glance at this neglected space. However, there are good bloggy things to come, I promise. Thanks for your patience in the meantime.

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Patton
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Great post. Are the quotes included here available for use by someone to use elsewhere, if credit is given?
    The forum sounds terrific and there should be more of them. It provides new energy and enthusiasm, and helps new and expert journalists and most important, their readers.
    It's good to show journalists actually get together like other professionals to discuss their work. Beginners, especially, need quality sources of current discussion.
    Another subject touched on seems to be how crisis news work is able to separate itself from the PR spin often produced under the guise of news.
    Perhaps these forums should take more advantage of such things as web broadcats on a more regular basis.
    The better the training the better the result, and such forums are of immense value. For example just last week, I witnessed a good story being lost. I was in a news enterprise last week in another province, just dropped in to see someone, and got there just as a reporter was explaining to my friend how poorly they were treated via telephone by someone who might be receiving an award at the Junos. By chance, I knew the person and asked what happened. The reporter said the person was an idiot and unappreciative. The result is an article which is small and uninformative but could have been substantial and interesting. I know the person they spoke with and it really was unfortunate because it was an opportunity lost. Quality preparation by both parties would have resulted in a better piece of journalism.
    Forums such as the one you talked about here and similar opportunities will help reporters do a better job. Education are it, man.
    Thanks again.