Sounding the Alarm

Crisis planning in the middle of a crisis is not a plan. As strategic communicators, we have not only the opportunity but the obligation, to be prepared in the event of a crisis. But that’s the amazing thing about a crisis: you never know where or when it will hit and if your plan is sufficient until you need it.

In the past week, my community experienced a tornado watch. I live in a community where a deadly tornado touched down more than five years ago, but the concerns are still real for residents here, especially children, like my own.

I remember when the tornado hit in 2011, I was nine months pregnant with my second child. That afternoon, I gave instructions to my then-three-year-old that if something were to happen to us and ended up outside, to call my name loudly, instead of calling for “Mommy.”

Whew. She still remembers that (and I do too).

The experience with my child tells me that it isn’t just what you tell your audience after the crisis that counts when it comes to strategic communication, it’s the messages you communicate beforehand. While it may be tempting to examine just the crisis response, in this week’s Modern Retro PR we’ll explore systems enacted by leaders as part of their crisis communication response in the event of an emergency and why it is important.

Retro: CONELRAD

In 1951, the United States government established (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), known as CONELRAD. The purpose of this initiative was to warn the American public of an impending Cold War enemy attack via the nation’s radio and television stations as part of a civil defense response.

conelrad

Poster telling citizens how to find information in the event of an emergency.

Upon activation of CONELRAD, all radio and television stations would cease broadcast save for two designated radio frequencies, 640 or 1240 kHz. Those two frequencies would provide instructions to citizens during the crisis. CONELRAD’s implementation requested that the broadcasts would be operated by a succession of radio stations for a set amount of time in an effort to confuse the enemy regarding the broadcast’s origin. Think of it as a radio daisy chain.

In fact, radios were manufactured with small triangles marking the location of the two frequencies on the dial.

However, the plan was not without its detractors. In a 1960 article published in Time, the author argued that “a civil-defense warning system should be capable of warning 90% of the population within 30 seconds.” That would be difficult for CONELRAD to do considering that citizens had to have their radios or televisions “on” to hear these messages.

Additionally, the article cited “weak reception” and switching delays among the stations as reasons to abandon the system (Time, 1960).

Thankfully, CONELRAD was never officially activated, only tested, before the government transitioned to the Emergency Broadcast System in 1961 and later the Emergency Alert System in 1997.

Modern: Education Organizational Use of Automated Messaging Systems

In recent years, the trend has been for schools and school systems to provide alerts via automated messaging systems which utilize phone calls, text messages, emails and social media. In its early adoption, educational organizations would use these features to communicate emergency and non-emergency information alike.

Remember that tornado I was telling you about earlier in this blog? My school system used an automatic messaging system to cancel school on that fateful day in 2011.

The evolutionary use of this technology has seen recent regulatory updates as some alleged this was a form of telemarketing, especially when people did not provide “express consent” (Federal Communications Commission, 2016). This summer, the Federal Communications Commission issued a declaratory statement indicating such automated messaging systems could be used for both emergency and non-emergency purposes.

As someone who works in educational public relations, I find this to be a good thing. In fact, just last week a series of text alerts warned students on The Ohio State University (OSU) campus of eminent danger.  The information was also communicated through social media by the university’s emergency management and fire prevention department:

During the crisis, an 18-year old student drove his car into a crowd and began to attack 11 people with a knife before being killed by authorities.

In this day and age, when school campuses can be accessed by anyone at any given time, it can be a communications challenge ensure students, parents,  and staff members have the information they need to stay safe.

According to Pew Research, 72% of adults own a smartphone; but among the demographic most frequently found on college campuses (18-35), that number is 20 points higher (2016). This statistic underscores the adoption of automated messaging system as part of a larger strategic decision to communicate crisis events at schools.

Final Thoughts.

The first of five phases of crisis identified by crisis management researchers signal detection.  It is in this phase that leaders “sense early warning signals that announce the possibility of a crisis” (Wooten & James, 2008, p. 5).

It is not enough to just sound the alarm, the key messages must be clearly communicated.

“The role of any communicator in any crisis is to provide good information accurately, and in a timely fashion,” said Neil Chapman in a British cable broadcast now available online. Chapman was BP crisis communication director during the Deepwater Horizon crisis in 2010 who has since left the company.

Both CONELRAD and automated messaging system had the same intended result: to alert people of a crisis event and provide emergency instructions. The ambiguity in the CONELRAD system could lead to confusion if one couldn’t access the information in a timely fashion. Further, the delays in the system could lead to not everyone getting the same information at the same time.

Meanwhile, in the example from OSU, all stakeholders received the same clear and specific instructions at the same time–even people far from the campus in Columbus, Ohio. A quick analysis of new coverage of this event doesn’t yield questions about the timeliness of the message from university officials, but rather many serve as a primer to explaining what “Run. Hide. Fight.” means.  The speed with which OSU communicated and their transparency play to their favor.  Because the university worked to meet stakeholder’s expectations during the crisis event, they will likely maintain trust(Kim, 2015, p. 69).

The latter is clearly more effective than the former.

Effective, ethical implementation of strategic communication systems can benefit organizations not only during the crisis event but also in the aftermath. As part of W. Timothy Coombs Situational Crisis Communication Theory, crisis managers can “benefit from understanding how crisis communication can be used to protect reputational assets during a crisis” (Kim, 2015, p. 63).  However, it should be noted that organization’s reputation is not the priority. Priority one remains those directly impacted by the crisis.

By ensuring organizations have strong, effective and redundant communication systems in times of crisis means that amid the chaos, communication professionals and crisis managers may have a better chance of message penetration.

Finally, it would be a missed opportunity for me to say as communicators we cannot just be satisfied that the crisis is over; however, we must find time in the aftermath to reflect on our actions, determine how we could have responded differently, incorporate those findings into our crisis plan and improve it.

References

Buzzers Mean Bombs.(National Affairs; CIVIL DEFENSE). (1960). Time, 76(20), 26.

[CIPRtv] (2011, March 3). Crisis communication in conversation with Neil Chapman. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yjb196dB0VY

Federal Communications Commission. (2016). Declaratory Ruling FCC 16-88.  Washington, D.C.: Marlene H. Dortch.

Kim, Y. (2015). Toward an Ethical Model of Effective Crisis Communication. Business & Society Review (00453609), 120(1).

“Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 22, 2016). http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/

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