With 994 mass shootings in 1,004 days, it seems obvious that organizations need to prepare for “active shooter” situations in schools and businesses.
This week’s shooting at a community college in Oregon is just the latest in what President Barack Obama lamented is the new “routine” for life in public spaces in America. Politics of gun control and mental health care aside, the issue for Human Resource and Public Relations personnel is how to respond to senseless tragedies. The goal must be sharing information in ways that both satisfy the public’s need to know and insulate the organization from further damage while promoting healing and the return to normalcy as quickly as possible.
Questions arise when violence erupts:
– What has happened?
– What are the motivations of the shooter? Is this an act of desperation or a copycat looking for infamy in a blaze of attention?
– Are people still at risk? Is the situation contained?
– Were there any warning signs that someone overlooked? Did the organization take steps (training, security protocols) to prevent this sort of thing? What will it do to ensure this never happens again?
In the absence of answers, the news media and affected stakeholders rush to fill in the blanks with speculation and assumptions. A student committing suicide in his dorm room with a handgun can quickly ripple to false talk on social media of multiple killers going door-to-door to massacre other students, complicating an already chaotic situation as reporters and frenzied parents rush to the scene.
Once the dust settles, there are investigations and criticism of the official handling. Journalists will react with outrage if their questions are not answered quickly or thoroughly enough, yet rushing to supply information that isn’t verified leads to families hearing about loved ones dying through the television (when they were possibly never in any actual danger). A terrible situation can be made even worse without a strategic response, leading to firings and long-term damage to the reputations of institutions.
How are organizations to respond in these moments of crisis? Here are a few tips for mitigating the damage from the unthinkable:
1) Identify Risks and Have a Response Plan. The police train for these situations so their best practices are clear knowing they’re held accountable for outcomes. It’s a sad statement of the times that organizations must hold drills to prepare for gunmen on a rampage, yet it can also be seen as reassuring that personnel take time to think ahead. While staff take steps to protect human life, communicators within the organization need to know what expectations they must rise to the level of when thrust into very unsettling, surreal experiences. We cannot expect that systems which function under normal situations will hold up under a different set of circumstances. Contingencies must be considered and no crisis deemed too unlikely to plan for. The first step to avoiding a crisis is reducing the risk of it happening in the first place, and after a tragedy, evidence of having been proactive insulates an organization from some of the fallout.
2) Practice and Prepare. Carry out a mock crisis drill, making sure everyone involved takes it seriously. If an employee is disgruntled or coping with problems that could spill over into the workplace, respond with compassion and caution, alerting managers without making someone’s personal problems workplace gossip. Create a database of media outlets that can be contacted for distributing updates on how the organization is healing and moving forward. In summary, take charge of the messaging rather than leaving it up to others who do not have the best interest of your organization and affected stakeholders in mind.
3) Lessons Need to Be Applied. Drills and plans are useless if shortcomings are not assessed and corrective actions put in place. When something very bad happens, be prepared to accept responsibility for what didn’t work so it doesn’t happen again. Determine the effectiveness of mock crisis drills and put the results into a written crisis plan that can be accessed by key personnel, even if they do not have access to the scene. Designate someone to evaluate how messages are received and to assess changes in media attitude and public perception.
4) Take Charge of the Flow of Information. Work with stakeholders by establishing a “command center” near the location of an incident, but outside the police perimeter, for media to gather and receive updates from both law enforcement and organizational personnel. Be prepared to supply information, if only to report that there is nothing new to report. Do no harm when controlling information. Be prepared for hundreds of phone calls coming into the organization asking for information and offering help. Refute rumors without giving out details that are not yet verified as you are in the mode of collecting information and trying to determine what has happened. Leave the speculation to the talking heads filling air time on the TV channels.
5) Be Consistent and Measured. Key to a crisis communications response is a unified message and the expression of empathy. Communications need to focus on reassuring the community, propelling those affected beyond the crisis to learn and grow stronger. Personnel need to calmly and consistently assert the organization’s point of view with professional grace and insight.
6) Use Communications to Put Chaos into Context. Base every decision of what to say on helping stakeholders to heal and return to their normal state as quickly as possible. Show through words and actions a dedication to meeting the emotional and physical needs of affected people. Pay tribute to victims and survivors in appropriate ways.
Good crisis communications are the start of the healing process, refocusing beyond a day of chaos to an organization’s pre-incident objectives and portraying triumph in the face of tragedy.