Responding to Crisis

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Crisis, by definition, is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. We might hear other words used to describe these times such as emergency, catastrophe, disaster, or calamity. No doubt, words like these conjure up experiences we have had, news stories we have seen, or nightmares from which we have awakened

What is our response? Do we have a plan? I vividly remember the day in elementary school when the local fire department in my small Illinois town taught us the basics of fire survival. We all likely remember “stop, drop, and roll.” At its most basic level, this is a crisis plan. The uniformed heroes went on to encourage us to have an evacuation plan, to determine how would we leave our house, where our family would meet, and how we would seek help. I remember heading home on the bus that day and convincing my parents that we should practice, just in case, so we would be safe in case of a house fire. We practiced, and fortunately, never had to put our plan into action.

The same hope is true for any crisis response. A plan is needed, developed, taught, practiced, and hopefully, never needed.  

As Director of Conferences for RCMA, one of my responsibilities is to create and maintain a safe environment in which our events can happen. As one thinks through that responsibility, it is easy to be overwhelmed. To stop and think of all the possible things that can go wrong at an event can be paralyzing, but the same can be true of life in a dangerous world. We can either choose to stay in our homes and hope for the best, or we can move on with our lives, be cautious, know how to react in certain situations, and enjoy life.

Certain expectations of preparedness accompany our various roles in life. As individuals, we all need to be diligent in watching our surroundings, avoiding dangerous places, and avoiding foods we know will cause us harm. As parents, we need to care for and protect our children. As event planners, we need to provide a safe environment in which the goals of our events can occur. Attendees show up at our events assuming that someone is watching out for them. It falls to us, as planners, to predict, plan, protect, and provide. I created a crisis response plan for RCMA’s annual conference and will share some lessons learned as a result. 


PREDICT

First, we should predict the possibilities of harm, calamity, disaster, and emergency. This task can be overwhelming, but nevertheless requires careful thought.  

Not all potential threats apply to you or your event, but many will. There may be others that are specific to your audience. Evaluate the threat potential carefully and look beyond yourself for help. Each threat should be addressed with specific reference to (1) your attendees and (2) the setting in which the attendees are at the time of the incident.

Potential causes of harm:

  • Terrorist attack

  • Technology disabled (communications systems, telephones, wireless, etc.)

  • Natural disaster/weather-related emergency

  • Power outage

  • Fire/smoke

  • Infectious disease

  • Biological threat

  • Bomb threat

  • Medical emergency (death or serious illness of staff / attendee)

  • Disgruntled employee injuries or threats

  • Riots

  • Boycott

  • Suspicious unattended packages

  • Active killer


PLAN

I encourage you to create a comprehensive crisis response plan that  includes detailed instructions for each potential threat. This plan should provide clear, concise, and understandable instructions. 

Keep in mind security, law enforcement, and first responders will have their own response plans. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you work hand-in-hand with local officials to coordinate your efforts, responses, and communication plan. 

The instructions should address how to respond from a specific building/venue. If events are held in multiple locations, the plan should include a response for each specific threat as if it were occurring at each location.

Your plan is not necessarily for public distribution.
In fact, I would discourage it.
It could cause fear or un-certainty among an audience that has not thought through all the possibilities. Again, they assume someone is watching out for them. This is your opportunity to do so.

The plan should, however, be distributed widely to a select audience. For RCMA, that audience includes staff, volunteers, interns, security personnel at all venues, valued stakeholders, CVB personnel, and local law enforcement officials responsible for the area in which the event is held.

SAMPLE COMMUNICATION: Weather-Related Emergency 

  • Instruct participants to move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest level, away from all windows and glass.

  • Keep telephone lines available for emergency use and do not call 911.

  • All staff and participants must stay inside the building until instructed by emergency personnel.

  • Await further instruction from RCMA and Convention Center staff before leaving the desginated secure area(s).

PROTECT

One of the strongest sections of your crisis response plan should be a communication plan. 

Be clear who is calling the shots —who will deliver instructions and who will make decisions? Is it the CEO, chairman of your board, bishop, or director? Confusion will lead to misinformation and may ultimately cost valuable time or even lives in an evacuation.Decide in advance who will talk to your audience and the press,
if applicable.

Redundant systems are vital in crisis. Your team should consider appointing at least two spokespersons. This is for insurance against crisis. What if the only person selected to speak to your audience in an emergency has fallen ill?  Think through worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly.

Create a crisis response team. This should consist of key staff members and key contacts from each of your venues. A team approach to developing strategies and response allows members to take action in a crisis without wasting valuable time. Establishing specific responsibilities for team members facilitates effective responses to threats and minimizes miscommunication.

It is also important to maintain confidentiality. In an emergency, it is easy to alter facts, place blame, and create a secondary crisis. Here is what we have shared with our team regarding this topic:

It is imperative that RCMA staff observe the following rules of confidentiality regarding security and contact with attendees and exhibitors. Therefore, RCMA staff will not:

  • Speculate about the crisis;

  • Allow unauthorized personnel to release information;

  • Provide false information; or

  • Blame for the incident.

PROVIDE

It is important for your attendees to provide you with information. You should require that each person registering for your event provide emergency contact information. This can be collected during the online or on-site registration process, or you can encourage attendees to write that information on the backs of their name tags. In addition to an emergency contact name and phone number, information pertaining to allergies or medical conditions can be invaluable if the attendee requires medical treatment.

How you provide information to the public is also important.
I have seen announcements that run the gamut from airline-style videos indicating the nearest exits to fear-inducing paragraphs read by an emotionless MC that warned of actions I should take in case of an active shooter.

In addition to this public statement at each of our general sessions, we have uniformed police officers to patrol the indoor areas where our attendees are gathered and emergency medical technicians on duty during peak event hours.

I am not sure if this is enough, but something is better than nothing. Nothing is what I see often at events. Take time to appreciate the natural, accidental, and human-caused dangers around us. Create a response plan to concisely inform your audience of what to do in the event of a crisis. Communicate, rehearse, and practice the plan with your teams and hope you never have to implement it! And pray; it never hurts to pray!

SAMPLE: Security Announcement 

Security is increasingly becoming a priority in event planning. We care about being a resource to you.

Our team just went through the process of developing a response plan for this event. It helps our team know and communicate next steps to you in the event of an emergency.

And as always, we encourage you to be aware of your surroundings. If you see something, say something. The RCMA team and security personnel are here to assist you.

Dean Jones