Posts Tagged ‘crisis’

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:


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.

Why scaling up is as scary as falling apart

Lots of talk recently in my neck of hte woods about the Amnesia Rock Festival. It happened June 14-15, with 90 acts from Anthrax to Alice Cooper to Fucked Up to the Dropkick Murphys filling a field in the small West Quebec town of Montebello.

By all accounts, the music was great. But some are calling the festival an “organizational shitshow“, some bands weren’t happy that they had to pay to play, and a village councillor and others are pointing at an “ocean of pee”, giant unwieldy lineups to get in and out, shuttle buses that stopped running with thousands of people waiting to get back to campsites… And a few days afterward, the site is still quite a mess.

Concert fans at Amnesia Rockfest

It’s easy to go from this…

… to this, when you’re a business trying to scale

Organizer Alex Martel spent several days incognito, then began to speak with reporters yesterday, explaining that people were congratulating him onsite on pulling the festival off.

I know the territory that Martel is on a little bit. Music festivals are giant endeavors. There’s the money side — you contract to spend money that you hop you’ll earn back; there’s the logistics side — thousands of people showing up at an outdoor site expecting to be fed, watered, and go to the bathroom in relative comfort while the sound and lights are tip-top. In this case, there’s the complication of remote campign sites and shuttle buses. So much can go wrong, so quickly.

Since I wasn’t at the festival, I can’t say with any certainty just how gigantic a failure or success it was. But it’s a great demonstration of the difficulties all businesses can experience in scaling up.

When you start a project, it can be easy — you do EVERYTHING, and everything comes back to you. When it grows, you have to start growing with it. Maybe that means staff, or volunteers, or renting an office, or hiring subcontractors… and it gets complex. Sometimes you discover that you’ve gone from someone doing what you’re best at and passionate about to someone doing things that you really don’t enjoy.

There was a time when I was doing media relations, and then I became a manager of media relations.  It was only after I left the job that I realized just how little I had enjoyed managing people who reported to me.

I’ve seen lots of friends join startup companies that are hiring like crazy, growing like mad. And many times, those companies have crashed and burned. If you’re on the upswing as an organization, hooray! But don’t get so enthralled with the venture-capital money, the kudos, the excitement that you forget that you’re always just a few missteps away from total calamity.

And when you are blowing up the world with your products or services, remember that you’re most vulnerable to customer service prolems, communication breakdowns, and the things that can start out small but end up as fully-fledged crises. The solution?

Stay open. Use all the communication channels you’ve established. Meet your audiences where they are — at the checkout, on Twitter, Facebook or whatever other social media tools they use. Acknowledge problems, work to solve them, explain why they’re happening, and try not to make the same mistakes twice. Shutting down the lines of communication, hiding away, and moaning that people “just don’t understand how hard it is.”

If you talk to them about what you’re doing, they WILL understand. If you get defensive, they’ll stop caring and stop listening.

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.

Milestones, fake relationships, and continuity plans.


We all pass milestones from time to time. I figure the best thing we can do is note them and consider what we’re learning on the trip.

I took a  bit of an abrupt break from blogging. Two things conspired. One good, and one bad.

On the good side, I got busy , and took some time for vacation. That led to the first hiatus. But then, the bad thing. Shortly after I returned from vacation, my dad passed away, and I’ve been trying to juggle work and the myriad details that immediately follow a death.

The good news is that my mother is a very strong woman. The other good news is that she’s receiving moral support and paperwork from both of her children and their partners, her grandchildren, and being entertained and diverted by her great-grandchildren. So things are progressing about as well as they can in the wake of an event that was expected, to an extent, but still a terrible shock and a cause for mourning.

But enough about me. What’s on my mind when it comes to communications, social media, and PR. And there are two things that I want to highlight that relate to social media and to business that the last several weeks have impressed upon me.

First, a succession plan and an interruption of business plan is a necessity, for businesses right down to the micro level. I like to have discussions with friends and colleagues so that if something comes up that makes my participation in a project difficult or impossible, I have someone who I can slot into the project with a minimum of prep time. If you’re a SOHO, or a small retail business, what would you do if there was a death in the family, or if you were incapacitated by an illness or injury?

Second, it’s easy for social media to be criticized as creating false or inauthentic relationships, relationships which aren’t important. But when I got the call on a Saturday morning from my mom that my dad had died, I got support from my partner and my real-life friends. But I ALSO got support from people who I know only online. Cards. Memorial donations. Other gestures of caring.

Those gestures were meaningful. While I can’t prove it or quantify it, I know it. And last I checked, there’s no shortage of inathentic or fake rleationships in real life.

So those are two lessons that I’ve been thinking about since August 11. That, and that hugs are good. Give one to someone you like at every opportunity. It’s hard to imagine a bad outcome from a good hug.

And finally, one of the thing sthat I had to postpone when my dad passed was my webinar in the Think Tank Summer E-learning Series, organized by SocialFish and CommPartners. Instead of August 16, I’ll be presenting “Your New Content Strategy” on September 27. You can find more info and sign up here.

Admit you’re wrong, take up the opportunity (updated)

Bluenose II


I was stunned this morning to read a story online that said that much of the Bluenose II, a potent symbol of my home province, has been run through a wood chipper or soon will be. Yes, that’s right.

The Bluenose II is a replica of the Bluenose, one of the world’s most famous sailing ships. Built in 1963 by Oland Breweries as a promotion for its Schooner Beer brand, it was a copy of the 1921 fishing schooner that won the greatest races of the day and was as formidable as a fishing vessel as a racing vessel. (Note to current Schooner Beer brand owner Labatt: your website gets the Schooner story wrong. The beer predates the ship, so couldn’t have been named for it.

wood chips

Or this.

However, Bluenose II was not made of the best materials, and apparently has been quite a maintenance challenge for years. So apparently, its current owner — the Nova Scotia government — has embarked on a $15-million restoration that will take two years. According to CBC, much of the hull, deck, and ribs will be replaced, and the old wood is being run through a wood chipper. When questioned by the media, the government minister responsible said he didn’t know about this, and that as minister he doesn’t micromanage.

I could rant at length about the stunning lack of respect shown this vessel, and the parallels that it brings to mind with the fate of the original Bluenose (after the “age of sail” ended, Bluenose was shorn of its masts and used as a coal carrier, ending its life on a reef in Haiti in 1946). But let’s look forward and be positive.

Last year, around this time, I was lucky enough to touch and to play “Voyageur”, the Six String Nation guitar, an instrument that is chock-a-block with pieces of Canadiana — including a piece of Bluenose II’s decking (and a piece of rail from the Sydney Steel Corporation where my dad spent 44 years of his life). It’s potent. It’s important. It’s meaningful. And I would argue that it’s impossible not to be exposed to Voyageur without being moved by it.

Symbols are important. They summarize, they exemplify, they embody and they signify. They are potent communication tools. In 1937, Bluenose was chosen to appear on the Canadian dime, and has done so for 73 years. It’s been commemorated in song, most notably by Stan Rogers.

And so far, the restoration of Bluenose II is communicating some nasty messages on behalf of the Nova Scotia government, and, I would argue, the province. This isn’t “just public relations.” It’s image-making at its most important.

But The Nova Scotia government has an opportunity here. They can admit that so far, they’ve not treated Bluenose II with respect. And they can offer people an opportunity to own a piece of the old Bluenose II. I’d buy one. And I’d cherish it. And they can open up the restoration process to public view both in person and online. I’d go see it. It’s not too late. Don’t let things get worse. (UPDATED: Apparently there will be a webcam of parts of the restoration, which is already operating but not showing anything of substance.)

Organizations don’t have to stay on the wrong track. It’s possible to change. But you have to recognize the problem and admit your errors. And to make this post truly worthwhile:

Crisis communications ought to be minimalist and FAST

Two Ottawa-related crisis communications stories have caught my eye in the last few days.

First, there’s a long and entirely worthwhile story in the Ottawa Citizen today about how the federal government responded to the magnitude 5.0 earthquake that hit Ottawa last June.

On June 23 at 1:41, life was proceeding in Ottawa as normal. City council was meeting, the New Democratic Party was preparing to make an announcement, people were preparing for the G8 and G20 summits in Toronto and Muskoka that were happening that weekend, etc. Then… this happened.

Buildings across the city were evacuated, and media and the public began to look for information about the earthquake.

But as Tom Spears writes in the Citizen story, precious little information was available from Canadian authorities.

Within minutes of the quake, the Earthquakes Canada web went down, quickly followed by the phone lines for public and media information.

The first government update cited news reports of the magnitude, not its own sources.

Media began to rely on the US Geological Survey, while in some cases complaining about a lack of response from Canadian government sources. People who had actually experienced the earthquake were leaving firsthand reports at the USGS site. Earthquakes Canada has the same functionality… but it was down.

An hour later, a twitterer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said “Pretty sad that the traffic has totally wiped out NRCan’s earthquake site. Emergency preparedness much?”

At 4:25, a media conference call was planned. The call was scheduled for 6:00 pm. The media advisory went out … at 6:24. Only three outlets were on the call. Not surprising.

One academic claims this is a result of a general desire for control from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office.

The department provided a statement to Spears, telling him that improvements have been made in web functionality, and that the failures of systems seen on the 23rd had nothing to do with true emergency communications networks between agencies.

That may well be true. But as a communicator who’s dealt with a few crises and who’s prepared for a bunch that haven’t yet happened, it seems to me that there were some missteps here.

  • The surge capability of the Earthquakes Canada site was obviously not there, and its phone system wasn’t sufficiently robust.
  • There were far too many approvals necessary to allow seismologists to start informing media
  • There weren’t pre-approved templates for crisis media advisories and the like which could have been issued without translations
  • There were too many layers of approval and not enough delegation to responsible public servants

Second, the University of Ottawa had an unfortunate incident take place last week. When it was testing its emergency-notification text-messaging system, it sent a notification of a violent intruder to about 3,000 members of the university community. The message read:

“LOCKDOWN in effect! Violent aggressor {in/at XXX location}. Stop all activities. If possible, close and lock the door, and turn off lights. Silence cell phones. Keep away from doors and windows. If it is safe to do so, close blinds. Take cover and remain quiet until authorities instruct otherwise.”

A number of classrooms did exactly as the message said, until about 20 minutes later, when an all-clear message was sent. Was this a fail? I’m not sure it was. I think it’s obvious that sending out the templated message was a mistake. But there was little real harm done, and rather than reduce the credibility of the university’s emergency communications, it may have reinforced in the university community that the system will work in the event that something does happen.

To sum up the lessons that I take from this:

  • Crises are going to tax all the resources of your organization. Make sure that your crisis plans assume almost total breakdown of systems and will allow you to operate with minimal functionality. One place where I was involved with crisis planning wanted to develop a “dark site” using FTP technology that would require complicated (at least to me) software and seemed to me to be almost impossible to predict would work efficiently in a real crisis. I argued for a WordPress-based site that could be updated from anywhere with Internet connectivity or from a smartphone.
  • In large organizations, make sure your communication plans are shared and tested with the other key elements of the organization and that you’ll all know how to react.
  • When you’re testing, it’s likely a good idea to tell people about the testing in advance. Saves a moment or two of stress.
  • Have someone on your crisis team who can summon the most pessimistic scenarios you can imagine. If you prepare for the absolute worst, you’ll be better able to deal with only the moderately bad. (For some reason, I secretly love doing this type of stuff.)

And the final secret you might be interested in:

I think that while nobody wants to see a crisis or disaster happen, it can often be one of the most exciting times to be a communicator. Crises tax people’s brains and judgment to the maximum. They’re like intense workouts for the brain. And the more prepared you are for the crisis, the better you perform, and the more the experience feels rewarding rather than disheartening.