The first hour is critical. Protocols and timelines for communications to all groups should be established in advance. Be specific — instead of just listing the order of contact, set deadlines such as “Call emergency workers within five minutes” and “notify all on-site personnel within eight minutes.”
Try your plans out before an emergency happens. Testing is essential to getting your plan right, so be sure to build in crisis drills during plan development, and on a continuing basis, to guarantee that everyone in your organization is prepared.
During a crisis, you can get the word out much faster with communications technologies than without them. Yet, technology should not be your only tool during an emergency:
- Personal contact — Though it may be unrealistic to rely on mass personal notification in an emergency, often this is the first means of communication, as well as the last resort. Individuals should be trained in how to notify people near them of a crisis. Emergency training courses can help prepare individuals for leadership under extreme circumstances.
- Phone — Having an up-to-date phone list is essential, and you should use mobile phone numbers whenever possible. Although telephoning is not very effective for contacting large groups, it is essential to interface with emergency services.
- Email — Email is not a timely way to communicate during a crisis because it relies on audience members accessing the information versus delivering it to them where they are. If you use email, be sure to have an established emergency email tag in the subject line so it is instantly recognizable to your audience. Email can be valuable in later communications with the community at large.
- Text messaging (SMS) — If your on-site audience carries mobile phones, text messaging is a very effective way to communicate in a crisis. Distribution lists are already established through prior subscription, and your communications are delivered to the person wherever they are. Never rely on one technology, though, as some people may not have SMS service, their phones may be off, or the cellular network may be down or overloaded.
- RSS publishing — RSS publishing is similar to text messaging in that it can simultaneously reach out to various endpoints that have been previously established. Smartphones and tablets can receive RSS messages. RSS feeds can also feed Web pages on intranets, digital signage displays and some RSS-enabled mobile phones.
- Desktop publishing — Instant Messaging (IM) to desktops is another fast way to communicate if your audience is computer-centric. Screensavers can also display messages with the appropriate software installed.
- Digital signage — Large screen displays are becoming more common in all types of organizations. One of their main advantages is their high visibility when placed in public areas. Whatever software you are using to drive your digital signage should have the ability to interrupt its service with crisis announcements.
Whatever communications technology you are using, be sure to develop some crisis cues, such as altered colors, symbols or text codes, so your audience will immediately recognize emergency communications.
Events like Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech show the need for effective crisis plans. Most executives will agree that safety comes first — but you may have to work to convince upper management to commit the time and resources needed to develop and maintain a proven crisis plan. The best means of persuasion is to stress the impact of an emergency on the bottom line. The concept of lives being lost is so frightening and remote that people often can’t commit to the idea, but the financial consequences of a poorly handled emergency are fairly easy to demonstrate. It is better to be safe now than sorry later.
Every element of the plan should be pre-authorized by management. Executives and legal departments should sign off on the plan in advance so that there are no meetings or approval processes to slow execution. Remember — the worst time to try to make decisions is when emotions are running high or time is running out.