Crisis 101: Plan your work. Work your plan.

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Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

Luke Sharrett/The New York Times

On Sept. 11, I was traveling to Columbus, Ohio, for a football game.  When I first heard the radio news about CNN’s reporting of a gunfire incident on the Potomac that turned out to be a U.S. Coast Guard training exercise, I was anxious to learn more and see this on television.

I trust the Coast Guard’s review of the incident will explore the role of the public affairs office and how field offices share information with central command. CNN contacted the Coast Guard Command Center and was told “it had no immediate information.”

I don’t fault CNN for going with the story. Given the date, time of day (Sept. 11 about 9:30 am) and proximity to the Pentagon, the pressure to report timely breaking news was amplified.  It may have been “ready-aim-fire journalism,” but incident exercise planners and public affairs staff involved in the development of the communications for the exercise should factor the immediacy of news into the scenarios.

What I find troubling is the apparent lack of information held by the public affairs office at the U.S. Coast Guard. Nor does it appear there was a public affairs officer on site during the training exercise.

Anyone who’s been on either side of this business understands that “no comment” or “no information at this time” implies that the public affairs shop isn’t ready to issue a statement but may likely aware of the situation. Unless the phone call(s) was recorded, we’ll never know exactly.

The situation illustrates how critical it is to have a prepared and rehearsed communications protocol for various crisis situations – planned or unexpected.  Did the public affairs office know about the training?  Did they have prepared talking points or statements for media inquiries? Was this information shared with the appropriate staff throughout the organization? What communications tools/channels are in place to share information with the public?

While I was director of media relations for The George Washington University, we conducted regular incident management exercises (aka crisis training), including an active shooter scenario with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that closed a city block. While we did not notify the media about the joint exercise, we did notify neighbors and those on campus who would be affected. In consultation with MPD, a responsive statement was prepared for media inquiries, which began to arrive about 15 minutes into the exercise. The public affairs staff at both institutions were well prepared to explain that this was an exercise and confirm that no live shots had been fired. And I was on site watching the scenario unfold.

While the scope of the situations are different, the basic premise of planning and execution applies to both. As my high school drama teacher repeatedly said, “Plan your work, and work your plan.” Isn’t that point of an exercise?

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