Can you ever be fully prepared for a crisis?

The May long weekend is upon us and a rainfall advisory has been issued for High River, the hardest hit town in the floods that hit southern Alberta last June. Check out my blog post, originally published by IABC Calgary on the importance of crisis communication planning and lessons learned from last year’s floods.

(Originally posted on the IABC Calgary website on May 16, 2014)

Can you ever be fully prepared for a crisis?

It’s a rainy day in Calgary as I sit down to write this, with snow predicted for the weekend. Not uncommon for southern Alberta at this time of year, but the weather forecast seems to have people a little more on edge this year. As we approach the one year anniversary of a one in 100 year flood that struck our province in 2013, citizens, government officials and meteorologists across Alberta are hoping not to see a repeat.

For communicators, the floods gave us a chance to experience first-hand the execution of a crisis communications plan, or a chance to learn where organizations could improve in crisis communications. In September 2013, RallyEngine engaged Ipsos Reid to survey organizations to determine their level of preparedness for a crisis or an emergency. They surveyed organizations who were directly impacted by the floods (i.e., closing of premises) and found that while 80% of organizations have an emergency response plan (ERP) in place, less than half of those included communications plans or protocols.

“During the flood, the focus of company communications was on ensuring the well-being of staff and letting them know the operating status of the business. In most cases, however, the Emergency Response Plans did not include an emergency communication plan or protocol to support this objective,” said Tim Moro, Senior Vice President with Ipsos Reid.  (Since the report was released, Tim Moro has taken on a new role as Managing Partner, Calgary at Cohn & Wolfe.)

I spoke with several representatives at organizations about their crisis communications plans, and their experiences during the flood and in the months since.  Located in various areas around the city, some were not directly impacted by the flooding itself, but the events during that time did have an effect on their business and operations.

Consulting company, north-east Calgary

This organization had no ERP or communications plan in place prior to the floods, and one employee told me that there was no communication at all from the management team. One employee took it upon herself to share updates provided by the City of Calgary, but no official company communication was disseminated. Although the office location was not impacted directly, many employees were affected personally, but there was no support or communication from senior leadership to tell employees that they could leave if they needed to take care of personal affairs.

When asked who in the organization is responsible for implementing the crisis communications plan, the employee told me it falls to Human Resource and IT, but there has been no information provided about who is officially responsible. Efforts by other employees to start a planning process have been stopped by upper management.

There is now an ERP and communications plan being developed, but the employee feels there is no sense of urgency in getting it completed.

University of Calgary, north-west Calgary and west end of downtown

While I was involved in some of the communication efforts in the second week of the floods, I had limited information about the University of Calgary’s ERP and crisis communications plans before the flood. I chatted with Darlene Crowell, Associate Vice-President of Strategic Communications about the university’s response.

U of C had an ERP in place prior to the floods, which includes a crisis communications plan as well as business continuity plans. An update and integration process was underway to improve the ERP, crisis communications and business continuity plans before the floods.

“The university’s ERP (during the floods) was really a full court press, and every communication channel was used to reach out to our students, faculty, staff and other community members,” said Darlene.

At about 6:30 a.m. on the day the City of Calgary announced a state of emergency, the University’s Crisis Management Team and Emergency Operations Group were activated. The university also activated its emergency webpage to communicate the campus closures, impacts to exams and support services available, and used every other communication channel—email, emergency text broadcasts (which people sign-up for), signage, social media, etc.—to engage students, faculty, staff, alumni, guests on campus, and university neighbours. This level of communication was sustained throughout the floods, especially when more than 1,000 displaced people were housed on campus and needed support, from medical services to recreation.

“Our ERP is a good plan, but I believe the real reason our emergency response went so well is that the university empowers people to make decisions in a time of crisis,” said Darlene. “You can never fully predict how a crisis will unfold, and even the best ERP can never account for every possibility, but you can count on smart, well-trained people to do the right thing.”

National Music Centre, south-east Calgary (Victoria Park)

The National Music Centre (NMC) is located in one of the hardest hit areas in Calgary, and the water not only affected their physical building but 21 NMC-hosted event including Sled Island film screenings, children’s piano recitals and even a wedding.

“NMC had an Emergency Response Plan in place prior to the floods, and a crisis communications plan was being drafted at the time of the floods,” said Mary Kapustra, Marketing and Public Relations Manager for NMC. “Since the flood, we have created an extensive plan and have expanded our ERP as well.”

NMC’s ERP was put into action the day the flooding began to affect the area, and while email at NMC was down, social media was used along with a staff phone tree to communicate to all employees, and managers were in charge of personally contacting all of their direct reports. A meeting was held at an offsite location for all employees (full- and part-time) just four days after the flood. During the time when the downtown area was closed, email was used as the primary source of communication, as well as regular department staff meetings.

As for the 21 NMC-hosted events, social media and the website,, were the primary sources of information for all event cancellations and updates, and large “big box ads” were used on the home page and updated regularly.

Check out the National Music Centre’s YouTube video highlighting some of their challenges during clean-up and celebrating their amazing volunteers and employees.

What can we do to start planning for a crisis or an emergency?

As communicators, we are planners…sometimes excessive planners. But as many of us learned last June, sometimes there is never enough planning that can be done. So, what can we do to start planning for a crisis or an emergency in our organizations? Some suggestions from fellow IABC-ers are below:

  • Get management and senior level staff in the room to start developing a plan.
  • Plan and run through emergency response exercises.
  • Plan for a dark website.
  • Ensure employee awareness of media policies. (Who are your key spokespeople? Who should employees refer the media to?)
  • Create an orientation package for new hires which includes crisis phone number, systems that are in place, form to submit contact information.
  • Create a list of communications tools to use during a crisis or emergency event (email, social media, phone tree, text messages, etc.).

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