By Adina Chirita
Our second event of the 2016-2017 professional development season took place on October 28 at the ‘Aroma’ Restaurant in London. Named “When PR Gets Frightening: Crisis Communications”, the event featured a panel of three seasoned communications professionals and revealed how each of them is handling a PR crisis.
The first member of the panel was the London Police Service’s Media Relations Officer, Constable Sandasha Bough. As a police officer, she actively manages London Police’s relations with the media, has a very strong presence on social media and is constantly engaged with the local community.
The second member of the panel was the Director of Corporate Communications and Public Relations for London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), Mary Gillet. Out of her thirty-six -year career at LHSC, Mary has spent twenty years in Corporate Communications. Under her leadership, the Communications staff at LHSC have won over fifty-two Public Relations Awards.
The third member of the panel was the Manager of Communications for the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), Tania Testa. Prior to her work with the school board, Tania has gained public relations experience at Trojan Technologies, where she had a global role from 2005 – 2016. Previously, Tania held positions at Honey Design, Dow Chemical Canada and Campbell’s Soup Company Canada. She is a 2013 recipient of Business London’s ‘Top 20 Under 40’ Award and has been recognized with an IABC Gold Quill Award for successfully rebranding King’s University College in 2004.
Answering to the questions posed by moderator Keith Marnoch, Director of Media and Community Relations with The University of Western Ontario, each member of the panel has shared the protocols and best practices used by their organization when dealing with different crisis scenarios.
In terms of routines and preparations for any crisis scenario, all panel members have mentioned that their crisis communications plans are accessible to everyone in their organizations – either in electronic format on a shared drive, or in a hard copy booklet with questions and answers.
Beside mass-media, all three have cited various stakeholders they would need to communicate with in a crisis situation: Tania has talked about the School’s Board of Trustees; Mary referred to internal audiences, funders and the police; and Sandasha pointed out her employer’s responsibility to make sure that all London citizens feel safe.
Answering to a question regarding their rumour control methods, all three guest speakers stated the importance of monitoring mass -media, as well as the social media posts of those groups of stakeholders to whom their employers are accountable.
When asked who is, usually, the spokesperson of their organization, our distinguished panel members gave different answers. While Sandasha said that she is the spokesperson for the London Police Service in most cases, Tania explained that, at TVDSB, the nature of the issue dictates who will be the spokesperson. Mary emphasized the need to get media training for all decision makers, because, most of the time, they have to act as spokespersons. In all cases, even if someone else acts as a spokesperson, the messages that person will convey are written by the Communications Team.
All three respondents monitor and use social media to stay ahead of the story, and try to respond to all inquiries received in a timely and truthful fashion.
According to all three panel members, in a crisis you need speed and a well-established process. That’s why it’s vital to have a crisis communications plan outlining how the people are expected to respond in such a situation. Equally important is to confirm the facts before reacting in any way and only after that to take a position or issue a statement.
Moreover, after the crisis passes, it is imperative to debrief with the entire team to analyze what went well and what could have been done better. This helps with measuring how successful your efforts of handling the crisis have been, as well as assessing what changes your crisis communications plan needs.