2003 has been a year of crisis, not the least of which was
the major blackout in Ontario.
During a press briefing on Thursday, August 21st, Courtney Pratt,
C.E.O. of Toronto Hydro perceptively referred to the blackout as
an empowering crisis in which the public was playing
an active role (through energy conservation) in the outcome of the
crisis, based on the information provided by the media during the
As anyone facing a crowded room of reporters during an emergency
will tell you, effective crisis communications is paramount in overcoming
the predicament. To help us all appreciate the dynamics of a press
briefing during a crisis, here is an excerpt from In the News:
The Practice of Media Relations in Canada by William Wray
Carney (published by the University of Alberta Press, 2002):
Being interviewed during a crisis (such as an ice storm, airline
crash or forest fire) often comes down to answering four basic questions.
Whats going on? This question can be enormously difficult
to answer during a crisis. During the 1987 tornado that devastated
Edmonton, reporters demanded a casualty count immediately. However,
the situation was so uncertain, and new touch-down sites were still
being found, so that it wasnt until the day after the crisis
that a reasonable estimate could be given. While this was enormously
frustrating to the media, in fact it was as fast as authorities
could respond, particularly at a time when the priority was sorting
through collapsed buildings looking for survivors.
What happened? How did it happen? Sometimes the answer to
this question is easy (A tornado). Sometimes it may
take years for the cause of a disaster to be known (for example,
the cause of the crash of Swissair Flight 11 over Peggys Cove
was still being investigated more than a year after the incident).
What are you doing about it? As a crisis moves from the
acute phase to the recovery phase, media attention shifts from what
is going on to what the authorities are doing. The longer a situation
goes on (e.g., the ice storm of eastern Canada in 1997), the more
likely this type of media questioning, and eventually criticism,
will be directed at authorities.
One thing to keep in mind is that the same facts do not always add
up to the same opinion or outlook, particularly in times of crisis.
If you are a subject expert known for a certain point of view, you
may be consulted to provide a point-counterpoint perspective; if
this is the case, you may need to be judicious in what you say,
to avoid unintentionally hurting or provoking people.
How can people help? What can people do? The media often
perform public service during a crisis, broadcasting calls for volunteers
and equipment, asking people to stay away from the site, directing
people to aid centres and so forth. In a crisis, you can ask for
media help to get a message out and usually expect full cooperation.
Crisis by Any Other Name
and Thriving in a Crisis