Blogs

Communicating in Times of Crisis – Stories from the Front Line

Posted Friday, December 02, 2016

Karen White


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    Some of the NATIONAL team in action in Fort McMurray: Nancy Arab, Karen White, Heather Reinsborough and Andrea Cudmore.

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    Karen White partage son expérience de terrain avec les participants lors de notre événement NATIONAL Exchange à Saint-Jean, Terre-Neuve.

Following a recent Crisis Management breakfast that I hosted with my colleagues AnnMarie Boudreau, Kevin McCann and Fallon Chaytor, as part of the Firm’s NATIONAL Exchange workshop series, I feel truly fortunate to work with those who can be called upon when crisis situations occur.

Some of the most hard-hitting lessons learned that we were able to share based on our personal experiences, including my recent stint in Fort McMurray during the wildfire, include:
 

Crisis isn’t for the faint of heart


When building your team of communicators, it’s important to ensure you have the right people. Some questions you might ask yourself are: Are they an adrenaline junky? Do they stay calm under pressure? Can they multi-task like nobody’s business? While some people thrive in crisis, others don’t. It’s really important to understand the strengths of your people and leverage them appropriately.
 

Being on the front line will test your mettle & your might


While I haven’t lived home for a very long time, my mother was afraid for my safety and wasn’t convinced that I should go to Fort Mac. When calling home on my second day, I didn’t mention that the air quality was a 51 out of 10 (10 being bad, and 51 being really, really bad). I didn’t mention the bears meandering around campus. And I didn’t dare mention being mustered in case we had to evacuate. It’s good to understand that being on the front line means you are facing demanding conditions that will test you physically and emotionally. 
 

Take care of your people


There’s a good reason for the phrase ‘Fort Mac 15’ (meaning: 15 pounds). The leaders of the wild fire response understood the importance of keeping people rested, well fed, and hydrated. The Salvation Army was a welcomed source of conversation and comfort food. I’ll always appreciate those grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches before bed. It was the best, worst kept secret on campus. During the response, we also had access to support and counselling services. I think for many of us, we drew our strength from each other. We worked as a team and supported each other, which is so important during a response.
 

Be kind to yourself


For those of us hardwired for crisis communications it can be very difficult to unplug. You’re committed to the team. You don’t want to let anyone down. You’re focused on doing your job, and doing it well. I get it. Here’s the thing: if you push yourself too hard, if you don’t take a break, if you don’t take time outs, you will burn out. This is when mistakes can happen and your judgment may become impaired. It’s so important that you take a break if you need it, or encourage your colleagues to take one. Understand that it’s ok for you, and ok for them to take some time to refresh and recharge.
 

Structure matters


We’ve worked under a few different incident command structures over the past year. Incident command is a standardized command, control and coordination that allows a number of agencies to work together during an emergency response. If you have an interest in crisis communications, you should consider Incident Command System (ICS) training. It is very helpful to understand how to work successfully within the command structure. While it isn’t always perfect, the structure is there for a reason. It helps with information flow and ensures that people are informed of response plans and what needs to be communicated.
 

Importance of multi-channel communications


Most of us understand the importance of using multiple channels to reach our audiences. Nowhere was this more evident than during the Fort McMurray wildfires. From evacuation, re-entry to rebuilding, people rely on open, timely and responsive information. While Facebook can be daunting, in a time of crisis it was a very effective way to engage people. In fact, I’ve since heard that for some, it was the only way they were getting updates from family members. The incredibly talented, core team of communicators from the municipality did an impressive job of monitoring their social channels, and providing timely responses to residents. They put people first, and helped ensure the safety of their residents.

While we don’t ever wish for a crisis to occur, it gives me a great deal of comfort to know I work with an integrated team of crisis communicators, reputation managers, digital strategists and designers that we can draw upon to tackle any challenge. This is tough work, but it’s a privilege.
 

About NATIONAL Exchange

Launched earlier this year, NATIONAL Exchange is a series of workshops aimed at the up-and-coming communicators among our clients. These early morning, caffeine-infused gatherings feature an exchange of ideas and insights on the transformational changes impacting all communicators and advisers. From discussing data-driven storytelling to how to come up with the small creative ideas that make all the difference, these learning sessions are fun, informative and interactive – just the right mix for rising-star communicators.