Posts Tagged ‘disaster’

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.

Knee-jerk reactions rarely lead to social good

Garment workers in Dhaka protesting after a 2005 garment factory fire which killed 76 people. From Flickr user

As the tragedy of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh unfolds, I’ve been thinking about something that happened more than 100 years ago.

In April 1911, a tragic fire in a clothing factory in New York killed 146 garment workers at the Triangle Waist Company and injured 71. Until 9/11, it was the second-deadliest disaster in that city’s history.

When I was a kid, I saw a TV movie based on this tragedy, and for some reason it stuck with me. Perhaps it was because at about 13, I was watching child actors portray workers in danger at the factory and dying from burns, or from jumping from the 10th storey or higher, as the flames became more intense.

And that fire’s come back to me now as rescuers give up hope in Dhaka and the body count rises past 400. The dead in New York in 1911 were the bottom of the barrel. They were recent immigrants, young women, desperately trying to gain a foothold in their new country. They worked making women’s blouses (known as shirtwaists) nine hours a day Monday to Friday, and seven hours on Saturday, for the princely sum of $12 per week.

When the fire broke out, apparently when someone dropped a match or cigarette in some cloth scraps, it raged through the factory, helped by the fact that far too much scrap cloth had been left in bins. And the doors to the factory were locked.

So the workers tried to escape. The fire escape, a compromise between the factory owners and the city, was shoddy, and 20 workers fell to their deaths when it collapsed and fell 100 feet to the ground.

Horrified onlookers watched dozens of people leap from the building, some described as “living torches.”

Now compare that to the thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh, making less than $40 per month as compensation for their contribution to the Bangladeshi export economy, which accounts for 80% of the nation’s exports.

The tragedy of this collapse is infuriating, given the fact that the building was constructed without the slightest apparent regard for building code regulations, and that the owner apparently tried to escape the country once the collapse occurred.

And when it was discovered that Canadian brand Joe Fresh was one of the brands being produced there, Canadians began to ask themselves whether they should be buying cloths. Talk of a boycott of Bangladeshi products began.

The issue was then complicated by people pointing out that a boycott of Bangladeshi goods might well result in hurting the very workers that it was intended to support and assist. As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders wrote:

“The garment boom has reduced poverty sharply and raised the status of women. This has coincided with a five-year period of democratic stability. But the cities are corrupt and virtually ungoverned – almost certainly the root cause of the building collapse. Changes to building codes, safety standards and hygiene are unlikely to happen unless pressure comes from outside.

We know it can work. In 2010, Dhaka’s garment workers held huge protests: They won a historic minimum-wage increase of 80 per cent, to around $50 a month. And pressure from North American companies, chastened and embarrassed by events such as last year’s lethal fire, has increased safety and working standards in factories that sell to the West. Similar pressure can force companies to pay workers fairly and keep them safe from disaster and abuse.

The garment boom has helped reduce poverty in the West (by reducing clothing costs) and in the East (by providing wages far higher than subsistence farming or casual labour). The next step is to remain connected, and to demand the sort of workplace standards that should be universal. Bangladeshi workers should have the same protections that our own workers won, through tragedy and horror, a century ago.”

As you can see, I’m far from the only person thinking about this tragedy and relating it to the Triangle fire.

When over decades, living standards for workers in the West increased, and worker protections increased apace, we’ve seen that production go overseas, to places in which those protections and standards don’t exist. The Bangladeshi workers share many characteristics with their sisters who died 100 years ago.

But knee-jerk reactions don’t make for concerted change. It’s important for us to learn and to listen to those who know more about what’s happening on the ground, and then to figure out what the best thing to do is and to try to help our fellow man and woman by supporting in the BEST way possible, not simply the one that makes us feel good. And if we truly believe this is an important issue, we should be willing to act in a more substantive way than just clicking like on a Facebook page or signing an online petition.



Here’s a documentary about the Triangle fire that I found on Youtube.

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.

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.