Posts Tagged ‘crisis communications’

Crisis is never far away — be ready to respond.

I’m writing this on the day after Canada Day, which always feels like the start of the week to me. Living in Canada’s capital city means that you’re going to get involved in some way, no matter how low-key, in our national celebration. Yesterday’s revelry took place in lots of heat and humidity, and in the afternoon, there was a tornado warning — something that isn’t exactly commonplace for Ottawa.

Today, I was surprised by news that a music festival in my home province of Nova Scotia is cancelling its 2014 edition (scheduled for July 4-6) because a very early tropical storm seems like it will hit Canso, the home of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival, right when they’re supposed to be making music for an adoring crowd.

Outdoor events are by definition unpredictable. I was on the board of the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2010 when torrential rains made most of the site unusable and dealt a crippling blow to our finances. And in 2011, I was in the crowd at the Ottawa Bluesfest to enjoy a Cheap Trick show when a freak storm blew in and this happened (video shot by another bystander):

Fortunately, nobody died during that stage collapse, although there were injuries. Litigation over the collapse is still going on.

My experiences with music festivals have left me with an abiding interest in crisis preparation and response. And one of the most important things you can do as an organization is to have a “dark page” ready. What’s that, you ask?

A dark page, or a dark site, is a pre-developed website that you can use in place of your organization’s normal site in the event of a crisis of some sort. Why do this?

Well, if you look at the Stan Rogers Festival site, the cancellation media release is two clicks in. The main page, merrily promoting the festival and selling tickets, is what I see when I visit. Fortunately, you can’t actually complete a ticket purchase, but a casual visitor wouldn’t know what was happening.

If the Stanfest site had pulled down its normal page and replaced it with a simple site explaining the situation and informing various groups (ticketholders, performers, etc) of what they needed to know and how to get more information, the communication would be much more clear and straightforward.

Also, if anyone tries to share the news of the cancellation on Facebook, the site feeds FB information about the 2013 and 2012 dates, a fault in the HTML coding of the site:

stanfest

Fortunately for Stanfest, their fans seem understanding and conciliatory. But if those fans begin to ask for information about refunds or rescheduling without quick answers, the patience may wear thin.

I fervently hope that the storm amounts to very little and that the folks behind Stanfest are able to put something together to salvage the festival.

Whatever your business, you should put a little thought into this. Crises happen everywhere, all the time. If you want to learn more about this, feel free to contact me, or you could read my friend Ann Marie van den Hurk’s book “Social Media Crisis Communications.” She’s a superb thinker on this topic.

What we have here…

Here in Ottawa, the most concentrated area for tourists is called the Byward Market. This historic market dates to when the city was called Bytown, after its founder, Colonel John By. And while you can still get your cheese, produce, or meat in the Byward Market, there are more than 100 bars and restaurants that compete for thirsty locals and peckish tourist, and occasionally for the Rolling Stones, who filmed a video in the legendary Zaphod Beeblebrox.

When President Barack Obama visited Ottawa few years ago, he made a side trip to a Byward Market bakery called Le Moulin de Provence to pick up some cookies for his kids:

But that bakery, a bunch of others, and the business improvement area which represents the neighbourhood’s businesses, are not too happy these days. Over the next few weeks, about 25 businesses in this area will be losing power overnight, as Hydro Ottawa, the city’s power authority, works on an underground hydro vault.

The utility provided the businesses with two weeks’ notice. Moulin owner Claude Bonnet told CBC that he looked into a generator, but that $20,000 for three weeks’ rental couldn’t be justified. At least one nightclub has coughed up for a generator; other restaurants have reduced their service hours, and the bakery is reducing hours and struggling to rework its baking schedule.

So what’s to learn here? I guess there are two lessons. First off, while Hydro Ottawa has told media it consulted with businesses, it apparently didn’t consult widely enough. And it’s hard to imagine why this work would be scheduled during the start of Ottawa’s tourist season when we have months of winter when the work could have been done, and why business owners could only be given two weeks’ notice. It’s one thing to cut off power to my house overnight; I may miss an alarm or have to set up a battery-powered alarm clock. But when you’re a food business in the premier Ottawa tourist destination, it’s not an inconvenience, it’s a disaster.

And for businesses like Le Moulin de Provence, interruption strategies are crucial. I’ve done tons of crisis communications sessions where the organization has said “but that would NEVER happen.” I’m sure that M. Bonnet would have said “Hydro Ottawa would never cut off our power three nights per week for three weeks! We’re paying customers!” Just because an event is unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

So… what we have here…

is a failure to communicate.

Crises require hard decisions.

There’s a big story today in Ontario, with the banner headline:

“Ontario premier’s office was set to back decision to quit Elliot Lake rescue

Emails sent by Ontario premier’s staff reveal shifting views” 

Here’s the story in a nutshell, from a timeline of events published by CBC online.

On June 23, 2012, a shopping mall parking deck collapses in the northern Ontario town of Elliott Lake. By early the next morning, a search and rescue team is on site and beginning to stabilize the rubble to search for survivors.

On June 25, the Ontario Ministry of Labour orders a stop to rescue work, saying it’s too dangerous and unstable to continue. In an intense series of events, the rescue efforts are restarted and crowds of angry bystanders are critical of

On June 27, 2012, two bodies are removed from the rubble.

The news today is that the government of Ontario had prepared a statement supporting the suspension of rescue efforts.

Sorry to say, I think this story is not a story at all. Why?

  1. This was a disaster, and a communications crisis. It is beyond naive to think that governments would not have statements prepared in the event of suspending the rescue operations.
  2. The government was relying on its search and rescue experts to inform the discussion and to prepare for action. Is that wrong?
  3. This sort of activity is a standard part of contingency planning. For example, when Apollo 11 went to the moon, there was a chance that the astronauts would be lost. The US government prepared a presidential speech in the event that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins were killed during the mission. Is this terrible? It may seem hardhearted. But for communicators in crisis mode, it’s necessary.
  4. I particularly enjoy the story’s subhed: “Emails sent by premier’s staff reveal shifting views.” My gosh, as a situation evolved at a rapid pace, the staff were assimilating input from experts, gauging public opinion, and working on a communications strategy that would serve the most people in the best way? Wow. Would ironclad unvarying views have been a better position for the Premier’s staff to choose?

When bad things happen, difficult choices have to be made, and worst-case scenarios must be addressed. I don’t see anything telling me that this news story is anything more than the portrayal of a fast-moving crisis and disaster management scenario playing out. Shame that it’s being played as it is by the CBC.

IABC “Trends 2013″ conference offers real value

I have blogged in the past about the role of professional associations in a world where there are meetups and all sorts of similar professional development opportunities that can be had for free.

I argued, at the time, that the proliferation of low or no-cost PD opportunities was a threat to traditional groups such as IABC or CPRS.

But an event coming up next week is an example of how professional associations can counter that trend.

Trends 2013” is a three-day conference organized by the eastern Canada division of IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators. Three days is a long time for anyone to devote to a conference, and even longer for someone in my self-employed position, where time is quite literally money. That’s why I was pleased to be approached to attend the event in exchange for some help in promoting it to… people like you, who read this blog.

But frankly, I would have considered attending this event even if I was paying for it. Why? Synergy.

I know some of the people presenting at Trends 2013. There’s my friend Danny Brown of Jugnoo and my friend Andrea Tomkins. There’s Michael Geist, who I got to know during my time at uOttawa. There’s Caroline Kealey of Ingenium Communications, creators of the Results Map. Donna Papacosta, who I have long admired from afar. Anick Losier, now of Canada Post and jack of all trades Gord McIntosh. And those are just the people that I really know. Even Industry Minister Tony Clement will be speaking at the conference, and while I think his government has done a poor job with social media, he’s a proficient user. So I want to hear from him about that.

There are a large number of people who have sterling resumes and reputations who I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet.

So for my money, what this Trends 2013 conference will offer attendees a chance to meet several dozen incredibly smart and engaging presenters. These people are difficult to get together, all in one place. Sometimes it takes the resources of an organization like this to bring them together and fund a conference like this.

So go. I look forward to bringing the things I learn at the conference back to my clients and to my students at Algonquin College and Eliquo. And to sweeten the deal, you have a chance to go as my guest. I want you to tell me in the comments what you think the most important trend facing communicators in 2013 is and why.

I will choose one of the responses on October 29, and that person will get a complimentary day pass to the conference for either November 2 or 3. Get writing, and I’ll see you there.

And if you’re writing about this conference, why not use the hashtag #Cdniabc12 ?