Monday, February 1, 2010

Helping hands and thoughts on crisis response

President's Column: Tom Burke, APR, Greater Fort Worth PRSA
It was morning. Early Monday morning. A pre-coffee, pre-newspaper, very early Monday morning. The boss was on the phone. She had just been told to be in an 8 a.m. meeting, and she needed a presentation. A presentation I had to put together, and fast. I thought this was a crisis. The next day I learned what a crisis really is.

An earthquake is a crisis. Especially an earthquake that pummels an already reeling country, delivering a cruel sucker punch to hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Was this young boy’s mother or father alive? Any of his family members? What would these people eat or drink? Who would tend to their broken bones? Where would they live? One huge crisis after another. Minute by minute. Hour by hour.

As the situation unfolded before me on CNN, I was heartened that millions of us would do what we could to assist. I also was filled with pride that many local public relations and communications professionals are associated with organizations that assist in times of need — the American Red Cross, United Way, the Salvation Army, food banks, hospitals, emergency responders, women’s shelters, shelters for the homeless. What would we do without these groups and the public relations and communications professionals who help them fulfill their mission? 

Think, too, about the dedicated communications professionals who staff critical positions at local corporations and organizations, school districts and government entities. They handle the crisis message on a regular basis, to the benefit of us all. Think H1N1 or the swine flu, and recall the superb job done recently by the Fort Worth Independent School District and Tarrant County. And be thankful for the media people who partner at times with PR departments to inform, educate and protect our community. It’s a partnership that lets us know that no matter what happens, day or night, helping hands are near.

Helping hands. Comfort. Hope. These things, and so much more, are needed by the people of Haiti. For they are the ones who experienced the real crisis.
-- from the February 2010 eChaser newsletter

(Photo credit: JMaz Photo)

School PR response to the H1N1 Crisis

In January, the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of PRSA kicked off 2010 with a program that featured the Fort Worth ISD's Communications Department and their presentation H1N1: Six Days in May and Beyond.

The presentation was in essence the school district's communications/PR response to the H1N1/Swine Flu outbreak that hit our area and the controversy they had to tackle. Below is the video the team presented:

What struck me about that District's response was that it had to be an integrated effort by all areas in order to be successful. This was no time for silos and worrying about stepping on toes. The administration, operations, campuses, technology, transportation, etc. in addition to the communications efforts all had to coordinate and cooperate. From a PR stand-point, they wanted to position the District as doing the right thing for kids. FWISD Senior Communications Officer, Barbara Griffith, pointed out that the actions and decisions were made in a way to show that the district was "going to protect our children."

Communications Carry-out:
  • Plan, plan, plan - "We thought we had a crisis can never plan enough," said Griffith.
  • Trust your communication channels - Think through response mechanism and all of its forms, i.e. dedicated web presence for issue, phone tree, phone hot-line for Q&A, in-house video options, press conferences and media relations, social media tools, etc. 
  • Be flexible - They were shooting at a moving target during the crisis because of internal/external influences such as national, state, and local health agencies mandates. During their meetings, no idea was a bad idea.
  • Pay attention to media needs - Think of things from the media's perspective and plan (or adapt) accordingly.
  • A united front - This was a huge team effort and exemplified the "Ft. Worth way."
From my perspective as school PR professional, I believe the overall operationally integrated effort and approach for continued learning, and a swift return to normal through the H1N1 crisis by the Ft. Worth ISD last year was highly commendable and impressive. Were their decisions popular? Not for everyone inside and outside the organization. But then, that's the line schools districts and leaders have to walk in times of fear in order to meet the needs, trust and expectations of our communities.

If you attended this program, what were some things that applied to you and your work? The comments are yours.

Note: This post was delayed in anticipation of the video presentation being uploaded to the FWISD YouTube channel. Special thanks to Barbara Griffith, Clint Bond, and Scott Juvette and their communications/PR team. The post is also cross-posted on the Next Communications blog.