Friday Night Lights.

A new school year often brings about new level of excitement and energy. No where is this more evident than on the school’s athletic fields for Friday Night Football where the community can come together to celebrate the hard work of student athletes.

Recently, our school system experienced a panic at a high school football game which put our communication protocols to the test. The result was reviewing our process, gathering input, and announcing new procedures to better ensure the safety of our student athletes and spectators who are there are watch the game:

One week after the events outlined above, another school system in Alabama was in the news for an incident with a different outcome.

It is expected that your school/district have a crisis plan and one that guides your communication responses in the ensuing aftermath.

But what about real-time communication during an athletic event crisis?

As the a school PR practitioner, have you ever seen the plan for an athletic event crisis? Is it as strong it could be from your professional opinion? Being at the table as part of a leadership team tasked with addressing these challenges has been a thought-provoking experience:

  • What role/responsibility does the public address announcer in providing directions in real-time?
  • How would your PA announcer get the information to communicate possible life-saving instructions in real-time?
  • If your PA announcer is not a school/district employee, what is your process for looping them into that aspect of the crisis plan?
  • What does your visiting team know about your crisis protocols (e.g. would they know where to shelter if there is severe weather?)

These days, safety is a key concern for every school/district. The time to consider the answer to these questions is long before you turn on the Friday Night Lights.

Media Mania & Emerging Technology

I learned how to be a journalist in the late nineties. One of my class assignments was to use a telephone book and a curly-que-tailed phone to find and call sources. At my first job, I was expected to know how to navigate my way around the city using a large map book in the news vehicle.

Six months after graduation, the reporters in my shop were being asked to become “convergence journalists” and report on television, a regional newspaper, and the internet at the same time.

Some of my colleagues balked. “We are TV reporters,” some declared. “Why would I put my work on the internet at lunch when the news doesn’t come on until 5 p.m.?” others asked. It was no better at the regional newspaper where the print reporters would refuse to share their story on television because “nobody brought a brush” to brush their hair before going on the evening news.

Three months later, 9/11 happened.

That was nearly 17 years ago and I was on the front lines of a shift in journalism and clearly remember the panic it caused in my newsroom. Now, a reporter needs smartphone with a strong signal and a full battery.

As the world around us changed, the newspaper industry stayed the course, belatedly posting content in text-laden, visually uninteresting stories and giving away the proverbial milk for free.

I am most likely at the midpoint of my career and the traditional news industry is fighting for its life. Media companies are rethinking the way they are doing business. Nowadays, to see a print reporter on television is commonplace; in fact, many journalists have built followings by offering live updates to their reporting throughout the day via Twitter. This was unthinkable when I started my career (and to be honest, some of my colleagues would have out-right refused!).

The use of mass notification during crisis has been a topic for this blog before. In this edition of Modern Retro PR, I noted a correlation between two incidents of causing mass panic through the medium of the day.

Modern: Hawaii Ballistic Missile Push Notification Alert

This weekend, residents and visitors in Hawaii were informed through mobile push notifications that a ballistic missile was headed their way. People in Hawaii thought the world was coming to an end, sheltered in place, and told their loved ones goodbye.

People in Hawaii waited for more information from the state government through the channel that sent the first harrowing message: their cell phones. But nothing came. So they turned online to glean any information they could, only to learn that 38 minutes after the initial text message, their lives were never in jeopardy.

It turned out the push notification was sent as the result of human error—a mistake.

Error or not, it was a panic-inducing event playing out in real time, online.

Taylor, et. al, noted that during times of crisis, social media is key to offering “connectedness; both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance” (2015).

This time the panic was caused by an accident, but something like this has happened once before—on purpose.

Retro: Orson Welles War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

On Halloween in 1938, actor/writer/producer Orson Welles did a radio adaptation in to the 19th century book, War of the Worlds. The production suggested to a nationwide CBS Radio audience that Martians had invaded America. Welles opened the program with a disclaimer and followed up with one two-thirds through the program that this was a production.

While there are reports of panic, it that has been mostly attributed to lore. Ironically, it wasn’t radio that was to blame, it was the ensuing newspaper coverage of the radio production, according to a duo of writers from



“Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted,” (Pooley & Socolow, 2013).


Interested in reading the news of the day? Click here for the 1938 New York Daily News article following the broadcast.

Final Thoughts

Incidences like these only raise skepticism among already-questioning publics. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern for the media industry, but it should be taken as a warning signal.

Modern-day assertions that news is “fake” parallel with those of newspapers in 1930s America that radio couldn’t be trusted.

A 2016 survey from Pew Research indicated that fake news causes confusion among citizens.

Communication is key, especially during crisis.  In both cases, it is evident that “communication is one of the fundamental tools of emergency management” (Simona, Goldberg, & Adini, 2015, p. 610). Like push notifications in the modern example and radio in the retro example, both were considered newer (emerging) forms of media in their day. While it is important for the industry to embrace change to remain relevant, it is more important to embrace the responsible use of emerging technologies through the use of strategic thinking of what are the possible outcomes.

The misuse of any communication channel can erode the public trust. In both examples, the Federal Communication Commission weighed in and issued responses to a questioning public.

That is why it is crucial that those working in communications-related fields use all the tools at their disposal to find appropriate sourcing and provide corroborating evidence of the information being shared.



There is no secret to this success; the foundational skills which have served journalists well will continue to do so well into the future.


Pooley, J., & Socolow, M. J. (2013, October 28). The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic. Retrieved January 14, 2018, from

Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies—A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal of Information Management, 609-619. doi:

Taylor, M., Wells, G., Howell, G., & Raphael, B. (2012). The role of social media as psychological first aid as a support to community resilience building. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27(1), 20–26.

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.


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.


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.


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

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).