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Large-scale communications operations in times of urgency

|June 28, 2017
Written by

Tenney Loweth

Consultant

Written by

Jonathan Motha-Pollock

Last week, NATIONAL had the opportunity to attend the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) panel discussion, sponsored by Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), entitled, Unprecedented Crisis: Fort McMurray wildfire response[READ MORE]. Marking approximately one year since the Fort McMurray (or Fort Mac) wildfire disaster, the discussion addressed the actions and key learnings of those who provided much needed on-site communications support at the time of, and in the months following, the disaster.

Fort Mac is the largest city in Alberta’s Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB). At the time of the crisis, more than 90,000 residents were evacuated for a month. Over 2,500 homes and building were destroyed, along with thousands of vehicles. The IBC and the CPRS were on the ground during the thick of it to assist in communications and relief efforts. The IBC noted that the Fort Mac wildfire was the largest insured disaster in Canadian history, and that there were more than $3.7 billion in claims made.

The panel discussion was moderated by Diane Begin, Vice President of Social Marketing and Brand Communications, Ruckus Digital and APEX Public Relations. The panelists—all of whom were on the ground in Fort McMurray during and/or after the wildfire—included, Russell Baker, Sara Falconer, Robin Smith, and Sally Turney.

When asked about what stood out the most about their time in Fort Mac, the panelists remarked on their colleagues and the incredible devotion to the tasks at hand, however large or small. Staff and volunteers were often exhausted and overwhelmed, but everyone wanted to help in whatever way they could. Begin described it saying, “you hated being there and you hated not being there.”

Fellow NATIONAL colleague, Heather Reinsborough was a part of the NATIONAL team that was deployed during the early stages to help serve within the Regional Emergency Operation Centre (REOC). “Looking back, the memories that standout the most are the amazing people that I met and worked with. When working long hours, everyone’s energy and positivity was the thing that kept me going.”

Every bit of help was needed. Turney noted that even though the IBC had an emergency plan in place, being quick and adaptable was necessary, especially when it came to addressing unexpected items. For example, the 12,000 “white goods” (i.e. large electrical items such as refrigerators and freezers), which had to be collected and compressed from homes.

There were many communications components to tackle, and teams had to push themselves especially when it came to the critical time of re-entry for Fort Mac residents. All major outlets were in town to cover the event, and the volume of reporters and cameras needed to be carefully controlled for the benefit of people returning home. As a result, communications teams arranged a very tightly organized media conference to handle all interviews in one location. The media conference itself was organized in about an hour and a half, and 150 interviews were conducted in less than two hours.

“During re-entry, our goal was to help get residents home safely and once they returned, having information and services available for them,” said Heather. “To do this, our approach to communications was to ensure we had important messages available in a variety of formats, which were easy to access—from traditional news stories, to video updates, to road signs, to information centers staggered throughout the community—we did our best to reach every resident.”

Through it all, social media communications were crucial in providing up-to-the-minute updates to residents, media, and the general public. In fact, the Canadian Red Cross’ (@redcrosscanada) followers increased 600 per cent in just 24 hours when evacuations began, a testament to how tactics on the ground can be supplemented and how effective social media can be in a public crisis.

——— Written by Tenney Loweth, Coordinator and Jonathan Motha-Pollock, former Health Coordinator, NATIONAL Public Relations