Crisis Communications, Planning for the Unexpected

“If you don’t feed the dogs quickly, they’ll start to rummage through the garbage,” said Brandy King, senior communications manager for Southwest Airlines.

That was her advice to the PRSA Richmond chapter during a recent meeting about “Planning for the Unexpected.”

“It’s not what we say but how, where and how quickly,” she noted. “If you’re dark, you’re just not part of the conversation.”

She talked about the importance of a crisis communications plan. At Southwest the plan is “built around the biggest crisis we could have – an airplane crash.” The plan includes identifying a media briefing room and providing a phone bank.

During a crisis, a member of the Southwest Airlines communications team is part of the company’s Emergency Command Center. This allows the person to understand all aspects of the crisis and is critical to the company’s effective handling of the situation, Brandy said.

If a crisis is of the magnitude that the existing communications staff is unable to keep up with call volume, other staff members are called in to assist. These staff members were trained in advance to take messages from reporters and the public. “We don’t want the media getting voice mail,” she said.

She also discussed the influence of social media on a crisis. “Customer situations that might have been a blip are now turning into a crisis on social media,” she observed. When it comes to communications, they key principles to remember are 

  • Speed
  • Substance
  • Distribution
  • Credibility
  • Public sentiment

Brandy’s best piece of advice – “We know we are never going to be fully prepared but that doesn’t stop us from trying to be fully prepared.”

How Big Ideas Can Save Journalism

Since you are reading this blog, you already know that people have changed how they consume information.

Unfortunately, many companies have not kept up with those changes – newspapers included. This was the observation of Ethan Huffman, communications specialist for the Idaho National Laboratory and one of the speakers during Media Network Idaho’s workshop on “Communicating in a Changing World.”

Ethan used examples from several companies as part of his talk on “Inspired Thinking: How Big Ideas Can Save Journalism.”

He believes that journalism for a new era requires four things:

  1. Identifying opportunities
  2. Gathering journalists/publishers who have the best ideas
  3. Creating a sustainable profit model
  4. Building a robust network for access

But before that can happen, Ethan said we must understand the cultural limitations of newspapers. That cultural limitation is discussed by Malcom Gladwell in his books.

In the first half of the 1800s, journalism saw the birth and growth of the New York Post, Herald, Times and Tribune. He noted that they’ve exposed corruption and injustice and served as a checks and balance on government. But today digital content dominates.

Newspapers have existed for so long with a printed newspaper concept, Ethan said, “it’s a cultural barrier; it’s their legacy.”

In reviewing quality versus quantity, Ethan says it makes sense to move to all digital. “Printed isn’t cost effective,” he notes. For example the Detroit Free Press went completely digital and discovered it saved 30,000 miles per day on its fleet that delivered newspapers. Multiply those miles times the cost of gas and there is a considerable cost savings, especially given that by the time the newspapers were delivered, the news was old.

He suggests that newspapers ignore the arenas in which they can’t compete, namely breaking news, national sports and classifieds. Instead, Ethan says, they should focus on features, investigative journalism and science writing.

Newspapers also need to make their material mobile. He noted that only 20 newspapers are available on Kindle or the Nook and yet there are more than 500,000 books and hundreds of magazines available. “Newspapers aren’t keeping up,” he says.

A final observation Ethan made was for newspapers to establish an alliance.

  1. Turn competitors into allies
  2. Map a network of supporters
  3. Make the newspaper an experience
  4. Build fans, not customers

And while the audience that Ethan spoke to reads newspapers, the majority did so online. His seminar provided a thought-provoking conversation on keeping journalism alive.

Time to Regain Control

I’m just back from giving two presentations to Media Network of Idaho. The good thing is that they were presentations I had previously given to organizations in Virginia so with a bit of tweaking I was ready to go. It still required travel and time away from the office, as well as giving up a weekend at home (the bonus, though, was a visit to Yellowstone in the fall, which was a good trade).

By Nina Matthews Photography

The presentations came on the heals of the NFPW Conference in Chicago, launching the website and representing my organization at a Rotary meeting. I also have launched a Writer Wednesday series at my local library.

I’ve had a lot on my plate both at work and at home. I recognize that these are activities I’m choosing to be involved with, and I really enjoy being involved. But, I was starting to feel overwhelmed.
One good thing is that the crisp temperatures of autumn are upon us and that always adds a spring to my step. My work, however, was still piling up. In fact, there were days I just couldn’t seem to get anything done. I was easily distracted.
One evening at home, I put a CD on and allowed myself to clean and organize my desk for as long as the CD was playing. When it was finished, I had to work for 47 minutes (I needed a random number to make it feel less like work) so I set the microwave timer and sat down at my desk. I finished one blog and made some updates to the NFPW website. Then I tackled the biggest item, which was finalizing the contest rules.
So now I’m doing the same thing at my office. One afternoon, I simply had enough. And for one hour, I allowed myself the luxury of cleaning out emails (I set a goal of reducing my inbox by 25), shredding papers and organizing files. At the end of that hour I felt much more relaxed.
Next I made a list of the big projects and deliverables that were waying me down. I prioritized them and set aside an appropriate amount of time for each one. Suddenly there were enough hours in the week to finish each of the assignments.
I don’t have a clean desk yet and my inbox is still not at the manageable point, but the “To Do” list is shorter, and at least now I feel as if I have a handle on it.
How do you regain control?

Valuing a Free and Responsible Student News Media

My high school journalism teacher and I are Facebook friends.

Roger taught me a lot about journalism – and about life. I am who I am today, in part, because of what I learned in that classroom from Roger and from the hours I spent working on the newspaper.

But what happens when you can’t report the news as a student? How do you cultivate a free and responsible student news media? Those were the questions during a keynote session of the 2010 NFPW Conference in Chicago.

Barbara Thill resigned, as did several of the student newspaper staff, in the face of changes imposed on the Stevenson High School staff in Lincolnshire, Ill. The changes were imposed on the school’s journalism program after a controversial article on student sex life ran in the January 2009 Statemen.

Randy Swikle, Illinois director of the Journalism Education Association, noted, “School officials can’t censor just because they disagree” with the topic.

Despite the actions of the school, there are those who believe in scholastic journalism. The McCormick Foundation produced a booklet to inspire ethical protocol, improved communication and democratic learning among the stakeholders of scholastic journalism.

Among the functions of a student press as listed by Robert Dardenne, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media studies at the University of South Florida, are –

1)      To educate

2)      To inform

3)      To encourage discussion

4)      To share school culture

5)      To persuade

The booklet is a strong reminder of why we must value a free and responsible student news media.

To Roger and all the other student newspaper advisors, “Thank you!”

Libraries Open Doors

Attending the 13th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards last evening, I was struck by how each other talked about how libraries had influence them.

Whether it was opening new worlds of exploration or setting the stage for future writing careers, libraries were the cornerstone of everyone’s story.

Attending the awards feels good. I love books. I always have and hope I always will. So to be able to meet the authors whose works have swept me away is always a thrill. Last night I met Barbara Kingsolver. A great friend turned me onto her works many years ago. Her early works had a profound impact on my outlook.

“The Bean Trees,” which is described as “a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places,” was an early favorite. More recently, I was riveted by “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and this summer I embarked on my own journey to eat off the land. So I started my own garden.

Kingsolver was honored last night  for her newest book, “Lacuna.” And I was delighted to spend a few minutes chatting with her about my garden and its success. And I was overjoyed when she signed my book.

I also attend for inspiration. Adriana Trigiani hosted the evening. She continues to remind me to “just write.” She continues to encourage all of us writers to finish our projects. I attended with a friend who did finish her project. Julie Campbell’s “The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History,” is now on book shelves.

As a child, libraries opened the doors to whole new worlds. As an adult, I continue to find inspiration and friendship in my library.

Thank you Library of Virginia for an incredible evening.