Having a Planned Approach to Crisis Communications at Events

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Having a Planned Approach to Crisis Communications at Events

By Bob Mellinger | Sep 19, 2018

Given the natural disasters and terrorist activity of the past several years, every organization that runs events should be prepared to protect its attendees, exhibitors, speakers, employees and, to the greatest degree possible, the continuity of its events. As critical as the safety issue is the potential impact to the organization’s reputation. One ruined or badly handled event could require years of rebuilding reputation, attendance and possibly even membership.

Regardless of the crisis, you can and probably do plan even for the unthinkable. Most organizations have complete plans for events, including disaster recovery and business continuity—with the exception of how they will communicate during and after the crisis.

A planned approach to crisis communications can help mitigate or even avert some crises. It limits the number of decisions that must be made in crisis mode and gives you the tools you need to get right on top of things and hit the ground running. If handled correctly, crisis communications—the management of perception—helps ensure that your plan will work. It also helps preserve an organization’s credibility, reputation and business value.

While the very nature of a crisis indicates something unplanned, and often totally beyond our ability to predict, you can take many steps now to help you prepare for the unpredictable.

The Crisis Communications Team

Who’s on this team will vary from organization to organization and event to event, but some responsibilities will remain the same in most cases. You have to decide who will make which decisions. In many cases, it will be the meeting planner. When the time comes, someone has to decide if you actually have a crisis on your hands or not. Who will handle onsite communications? How will you communicate if there is no power, no cell signals? Who will brief the media? Who will be the liaison to the crisis management team, attendees, employees and other stakeholders? Clarify everyone’s roles and responsibilities, and write it all down so that everyone knows.

Communications Protocol

Once someone decides a crisis is at hand, whom do they tell? And whom does that person tell? Certain types of crises, like explosions, will be immediately identifiable and everyone will know about them. Other problems, such as fraudulent tickets, might be noticed first by the gate guards (do they know who to tell?). The crisis communications team’s roles and responsibilities, along with directions on how to notify the team and what information is needed, must be made available to everyone involved in the event. Also, how will they be told? Have you considered what mass communications you will use? Even a small event should have plans for some sort of mass communication in crisis situations.

Designated Spokesperson(s)

What qualities do you want in a media spokesperson? He or she should be forthright, calm and able to convey information clearly and logically. Pick someone on your team and plan to train them. It’s critical to have someone who is skilled in handling questioning under pressure, who can take control of an interview and who is familiar with some of the tricks of the media’s trade. Remember that media influence can be very important in crisis situations and that if you don’t provide them with information they will find somebody to speculate about it (and probably make it sound worse than it really is). It’s not just nature that abhors a vacuum.

Surfacing Potential Crises

The easiest way to figure out how to prepare for a crisis (and to communicate about it) is to unearth vulnerabilities and dormant or lurking crises within the organization. Bring together the crisis communications and crisis management teams and hold a brainstorming session. These folks will have valuable insights about the organization and its vulnerabilities and can help figure out where trouble might originate so that you can prepare for each possible crisis. Someone also should research information about the venue and the venue location to determine if there is a potential for crisis. Each organization should consider the unimaginable or unlikely disaster, the potential vulnerabilities and any planned crises and write them down. The more you can identify now, the more possibilities you can prepare for and the better your ability to prepare a response.

  • The Unlikely Disaster

    Most organizations probably don’t have to worry about bombings or other types of terrorist activity, at least individually. More typical crises would be fires, explosions, floods and similar events that can cause extreme damage, injury and even loss of life. You can speculate, for instance, that your venue located in a flood plain might be severely damaged by flooding, and lives could be lost. Or a dangerous substance could be released into the atmosphere the opening day of your event. Given what you know about your company, what would you have to communicate and to whom?
  • Vulnerability-related Crises

    You know your event is being held in City X, so follow what is going on there. Are there potential situations that could impact or interfere with your event? Will there be other events at your chosen facility while you’re there that might result in demonstrations, bomb threats, etc., which could impact your event? If so, perhaps you need to line up a contingency location. You certainly will need to know about local resources. Communicate with the facility management to determine their awareness of vulnerabilities and plans for dealing with them. The situation in your destination city and facility also should be factored into your plan. Or perhaps your organization is involved in something that might result in 150 protestors staging a sit-in at your venue on opening day of your annual conference? If so, that’s a vulnerability and you’ll have to figure out some way to deal with it. You can develop a communications plan for each potential vulnerability that you identify.
  • Planned Crises

    Most people wouldn’t actually plan a crisis, but they will plan activities that can result, through shortsightedness, in a crisis. Perhaps your organization is going to lay off a significant percentage of the workforce in one of its facilities in the venue location just before the event occurs. This could become a crisis if the impact on the local economy or other issues hasn’t been considered. Be aware of situations that could cause increased media attention and resulting loss of confidence or credibility if things are not brought under control.


Responding to the Crisis

Once a crisis occurs, you could have as few as 30 minutes—but certainly no more than 24 hours—to respond in order to gain control of the flow of information. If your plan is in place and up-to-date, you’ll probably be able to get a basic assessment of the situation and prepare a statement in an hour or less.

Pull out the crisis communications plan and assemble the crisis team. Put your spokespersons on notice that their job is about to begin. Assess the crisis and define the problem. Is this crisis one of the potentials identified in the planning process? If so, a lot of your work is done. If not, you’ll need to see what is usable from what you have and what additional information you have to gather. Whoever has the responsibility should start by obtaining as many facts as possible and validating information as thoroughly as is feasible. Determine the specifics—time, date, place, extent of crisis; injuries/deaths; and anything else you can find out. What do you know for sure and what is speculation? Combine this new information with any background information you have on file to complete the picture. Now you’re ready to communicate.

The full version of this article originally appeared in the Winter/Spring Edition of Engage, the publication of the MPI Potomac Chapter.


Never Be Caught Unprepared!

When a crisis occurs at our events, it is our responsibility to be prepared to communicate with our attendees and stakeholders, and MPI is here to help with the new Crisis Communication certificate program. Being prepared comes down to developing a communications plan that includes auditing vulnerabilities, training spokespeople and establishing means of communication. In this course, we will answer your burning questions about how to use social media and other forms of communication when it really matters. The next opportunity to take the course is Oct. 15 at IMEX America in Las Vegas. earn more at IMEX America Certificate Courses.



Bob Mellinger
Bob Mellinger

Bob Mellinger is president and CEO of Phoenix-based Attainium Corp. For more information about tabletop exercises, drills and “The Disaster Experience” (a mock disaster exercise), contact Attainium Corp. at (571) 248-8200, info@attainium.net or www.attainium.net.