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In Times of Crisis

2003 has been a year of crisis, not the least of which was the major blackout in Ontario.
During a press briefing on Thursday, August 21st, Courtney Pratt, C.E.O. of Toronto Hydro perceptively referred to the blackout as an “empowering crisis” in which the public was playing an active role (through energy conservation) in the outcome of the crisis, based on the information provided by the media during the crisis.
As anyone facing a crowded room of reporters during an emergency will tell you, effective crisis communications is paramount in overcoming the predicament. To help us all appreciate the dynamics of a press briefing during a crisis, here is an excerpt from “In the News: The Practice of Media Relations in Canada” by William Wray Carney (published by the University of Alberta Press, 2002):

Being interviewed during a crisis (such as an ice storm, airline crash or forest fire) often comes down to answering four basic questions.

What’s going on? This question can be enormously difficult to answer during a crisis. During the 1987 tornado that devastated Edmonton, reporters demanded a casualty count immediately. However, the situation was so uncertain, and new touch-down sites were still being found, so that it wasn’t until the day after the crisis that a reasonable estimate could be given. While this was enormously frustrating to the media, in fact it was as fast as authorities could respond, particularly at a time when the priority was sorting through collapsed buildings looking for survivors.

What happened? How did it happen? Sometimes the answer to this question is easy (“A tornado”). Sometimes it may take years for the cause of a disaster to be known (for example, the cause of the crash of Swissair Flight 11 over Peggy’s Cove was still being investigated more than a year after the incident).

What are you doing about it? As a crisis moves from the acute phase to the recovery phase, media attention shifts from what is going on to what the authorities are doing. The longer a situation goes on (e.g., the ice storm of eastern Canada in 1997), the more likely this type of media questioning, and eventually criticism, will be directed at authorities.
One thing to keep in mind is that the same facts do not always add up to the same opinion or outlook, particularly in times of crisis. If you are a subject expert known for a certain point of view, you may be consulted to provide a point-counterpoint perspective; if this is the case, you may need to be judicious in what you say, to avoid unintentionally hurting or provoking people.

How can people help? What can people do? The media often perform public service during a crisis, broadcasting calls for volunteers and equipment, asking people to stay away from the site, directing people to aid centres and so forth. In a crisis, you can ask for media help to get a message out and usually expect full cooperation.

See also:
A Crisis by Any Other Name
Crisis Communications
Crisis Communications Checklist
Surviving and Thriving in a Crisis