How do you prevent a crisis from going nuclear?

Recent events in Hawaii caught the world’s attention, when panic ensued as the island’s residents were sent warning by text message that a nuclear attack was imminent, with the ominous warning THIS IS NOT A DRILL. In the light of heightened tensions between the US and North Korea, this must have seemed a very real threat. The alert was caused by a state employee pressing the wrong button; after the initial error the Governor knew within two minutes it was a false alarm but was unable to tweet reassurance because in the confusion he couldn’t find his Twitter password. He was immediately overwhelmed by a series of panic phone calls and, presumably unable to clarify his thoughts, it was a further fifteen minutes before he was able to communicate the news it was a false alarm. As reported by The Times (see left), it wasn’t until more than half an hour after the initial alert that the state agency sent out its corrective text, multiplying the level of panic and disruption among the population.

In a situation like this, the intense stress that inevitably arises from a crisis dramatically reduces people’s cognitive function, affecting the ability to think clearly and take thought-through decisions. With any luck, your own organisation is not involved in something as life-and-death as coping with the threat of nuclear attack. But it raises the issue – if crisis strikes requiring urgent response (cyber attack, data centre fire, food poisoning, construction site deaths …?) do you not only know what steps you should take, but have resilient systems to enable you to make the right things happen, very quickly, and in a variety of circumstances? For instance, how do you communicate with your team if your normal systems are down? Who is supposed to do what, if the designated person is away on holiday? An internal crisis can quickly turn into a media crisis if you do not appear to be acting swiftly and decisively. Any whiff of panic, or a ‘no-comment’ attitude to reporters, will play very negatively with customers, staff and shareholders. You want stakeholders to see you are to the greatest extent possible in control of events, rather than being controlled by them, headless-chicken style. Social media will be going wild if you are not careful, and systems need to be in place so someone has clear authority to send out the right, timely messages. Here, both social and traditional media can actually help you, by disseminating the right reassuring messages to customers and staff, and you need to be ready to speak to reporters almost immediately. So as part of your crisis preparation procedures, ensure you have not just thought through appropriate responses to potential scenarios, but how in practice they are to be communicated in times of stress, when things are likely to be very far from normal.

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