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Anatomy of a Crisis & the Impact of Social Media

Lessons from The Aurora Theater Shooting
March 16, 2013

At 1:00 am one hot night last summer, Tracy Weise, of Weise Communications (Denver, CO), got the call we all dread. It instructed her that a crisis had hit and this was not a drill. Tracy grabbed a quick shower, a cup of coffee, and drove to the client. On her way there, the first media call came in on her cell phone. It was 1:40 am and the call was the BBC. Thus began her amazing experience handling media relations during the Aurora, Colorado theatre shooting.

Over the first 36 hours, Tracy and her team fielded more than 300 media calls. Tracy presented lessons from her experience to NCC members on March 14. Using amazing photography and emotional video from the event, Tracy offered some excellent tips for handling a major crisis. Here are some excerpts from her very candid and emotional presentation.

Create your plan by FUNCTION not by PERSON. We often plan our crisis response in terms of people and their titles. Don’t be tempted to do this. People may be on vacation. Plan by function, such as Broadcast Media, Social Media, Employee Communications, and Government Relations. Have at least 3 to 4 people assigned to each area.

Capture your Universal Truths and let them inform every message you provide. The Aurora Medical Center’s Universal Truths were that their mission was the health and safety of every patient and employee. This idea provided the foundation for every message they provided.

Make sure you have a PAPER LIST of phone numbers of key staff and departments. Lots of times, these numbers are on someone’s cell phone but not written anywhere, or they are programmed into a desk phone. Make sure you have them on paper and post them where everyone can see them.

Have a RELIEF plan. Tracy and her team worked 24 hours a day for 4 days straight. Have a team waiting in the wings, with a transition plan to help facilitate the transfer of knowledge. It should provide whatever interviews are scheduled or reporters you promised to call back. Wherever your support comes from, make sure they have the clearance needed to work and that they know your market.

Make sure your client staff is MEDIA TRAINED. Don’t stop at the CEO. Make sure the CFO is trained, as well as the actual staff doing the work. Aurora’s CEO was out. The interim CEO was on vacation and there was no back up. The media wanted to talk to the doctors and nurses who had worked on victims. You may have to train them on the fly. In addition, though you may have no business reason to have a bilingual staff person for non-emergency communications, you may need them in a crisis. Quebec media wanted someone in French. Univision wanted someone in Spanish. You may need to conduct the interview yourself, but have the bilingual folks on hand to translate exactly what you say to the media.

Understand when to CUT OFF and when to ESCALATE what you are saying. Your informant (the doctor in this case) may tell you very specific details about how a patient is doing that you cannot relay to the world due to privacy laws. Know where to draw that line. Sometimes you may know the right answer for the media, but you must know whether it can be provided. The key question Tracy received was: How are the patients going to pay for their service. Tracy knew this question had legal ramifications for the hospital and involved the legal team in the response.

DO NO HARM. A crisis is a chance for you to either be a hero or a villain. It’s all in the approach you take toward communicating. To ensure you are a hero:

  • Be first.
  • Be right.
  • Be credible (this means oftentimes, you are not the spokesperson).
  • Show empathy
  • Show respect. They began every single message with “We are sorry for those who lost loved ones.”
  • Provide action. They offered a phone number for families to find out the status of their loved ones. They also provided information on where to give blood or donate money.

Manage PRESSPECTATIONS. They put a media tent up, far from the front door of the medical center and brought out water and sandwiches for the first 36 hours. This kept the press at a manageable distance and provided comfort to them. Taking the tent down after day three sent a message about how their crisis communications operations were shifting. They also used a pool feed. One cameraman, one radio and one newspaper were invited in to the hospital with the agreement that no one could use any material until it was posted to the feed. The also created an outgoing voicemail on Tracy’s cell phone that provided the latest status of patients, the latest statistics, and when the next update would be. This helped her keep sane and manage time and the media appreciated an automated tool that they could count on to get their job done.

ANTICIPATE the next story and have it ready. Once the story of what happened has ran, you have to anticipate what else the media will want to know. Tracy’s team lined up people, stats and data for what they thought the next story would be, such as what was it like in the ER, who was the hero, patient interviews, long-term stories. Today, she still works on media relations from the event. The story now is all about the money.

DEBRIEF with your team to learn what worked and what didn’t. Tracy learned that the whole week they had been set up in the wrong room. The room they had selected was ideal for location and comfort but it had not been wired for cable TV, phones, faxes, etc.

Some final thoughts and advice Tracy gave as she concluded:

  • Take a shower right when the crisis call comes in, because you don’t know when you’ll get the chance again.
  • Eat when someone puts food in front of you.
  • Bring all your cell phone chargers.
  • Take breaks, get some air and exercise to help you think clearly and keep your energy up. Do not drink any alcohol, as tempting as that may be.