Keeping composure in a crisis situation is an essential skill for public relations professionals. The Boston Marathon bombings took crisis communication to a new level, and challenged the PR pros involved in effectively managing their composure and, in the end, the crisis.
Sponsored by PRSA Boston and The Publicity Club of New England, “Code Red: Crisis Communication and The Boston Marathon” included a panel discussion between PR professionals involved in the event where they talked about communications crisis preparation and response from the journalist, government, health care, and local business points of view.
Held at the Boston Museum of Science recently, the panelists included:
- Michael Morrison, Media Relations Manager, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)
- John Guilfoil, Deputy Press Secretary to former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino
- Timothy Sullivan, Director of Communications, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Partners Continuing Care
- Nicole Russo, Executive Vice President at 451 Marketing and spokesperson for Forum Bar and Restaurant
- Kat Powers, Director of Communications, American Red Cross
Prepare, prepare, prepare
While the Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt tested the skills of the PR pros, MGH’s Morrison reminded the audience that the hospital has disaster plans in place to coincide with any large event. The hospital’s quick response to the bombing’s casualties are part of those larger already-established disaster plans.
Of course, Spaulding Rehab’s Sullivan admitted that along with the preparation for these types of events, it’s also about recognizing and capitalizing on those precious in-the-moment opportunities. While many of Spaulding Rehab’s employees normally would have been on spring vacation on Marathon Monday, he said the opening of the new facilities mandated a vacation freeze. When the crisis hit, there were people available to handle the communications crisis that might not have been available under normal circumstances.
In the middle of the storm
MGH’s Morrison quickly encountered his first challenge during the crisis while searching for a media spokesperson in the middle of MGH’s lobby, which was turned into a triage center. Time was tight and medical staff were busy caring for the injured. Morrison managed to find a trauma surgeon but with no media training. “I prepped him in about 10 minutes before the interview, because that’s all the time he had in between patients,” Morrison said.
On the Marathon route was Powers who was working the race for the American Red Cross. While helping with the injured, Powers was also managing the American Red Cross’ Safe and Well website where people in disaster areas in the U.S. can register their current status and their loved ones can then access their information.
Russo of 451 Marketing and Forum spokesperson was working directly with the restaurant, which was the site of the second blast. In the immediate aftermath, she said it was necessary to appoint a handful of Forum senior-level employees as the official spokespeople and communicators in order to keep accurate information flowing among employees.
Social Media: The connector
For many though it was social media that provide the lynchpin to communication.
Brunner and other reporters found themselves relying heavily on social media for information while remaining vigilant about journalistic ethics, which required vetting information found online with sources that could confirm facts.
For first responders, medical crews, and the City of Boston, social media became a reliable way to disseminate accurate information at a time when other means, including cell phones, were not dependable.
Managing the aftermath
As Deputy Press Secretary, Guilfoil recognized the importance of his former boss, Mayor Menino, and Gov. Deval Patrick in making appearances and communicating to the public that attention was on the crisis and the neighborhood. Also, as the Back Bay reopened, he said the appearances are a visible way to show the public it was safe to do business in the affected area.
For Spaulding Rehab’s Sullivan, managing the aftermath included respecting the privacy of their patients, managing the daily influx of media requests, and constantly training staff and patients on the proper use of social media.
Powers and the American Red Cross needed to focus on the outpouring of well-meaning volunteers. For example, immediately after the bombings, many marathoners wanted to give blood. However, the need for blood was going to be greater in the weeks following the bombings. An education campaign needed to be organized and managed informing the public that giving blood in the days and weeks following the event was just as, or even more, helpful to victims.
Throughout these different coinciding events occurring during the much larger crisis event, panelists agreed that it was keeping composure that helped successfully manage the constantly changing variables in such a chaotic environment.