If you live in the Triangle you likely heard of our local YMCA’s chemical spill accident that sent 40 kids to the hospital. Thankfully no one was seriously injured, and everyone made it home from the hospital within about 18 hours.
As a communications professional what stood out for me about the incident was the effective way the YMCA leadership and communications staff managed the situation. From my vantage point, they basically did everything right. Their response can teach us some great lessons about crisis communications:
It was obvious (to me anyway) that the YMCA had a crisis communications plan in place for how to handle these types of incidents. They quickly made representatives available to the press and appeared to communicate quickly with parents and emergency officials. I may be wrong, but I would bet they’ve even done practice drills for just this type of situation. Remember the old adage: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Based on references like this one in the press — “According to Jennifer Nelson, Associate Vice President of Communications for the YMCA of the Triangle, a lifeguard noticed a strong chemical odor near the indoor pool pump room Wednesday afternoon. The YMCA immediately contacted EMS, who contacted the Durham Fire Department, which declared a hazmat situation at about 2:45 p.m.” — Y staff didn’t wait to communicate the situation, and they didn’t try to avoid the publicity. They owned it, communicated openly and actually leveraged the press to help inform and alleviate public concerns.
Almost every article I saw had a quote from a Y staff member. There’s no better way to manage and mitigate the damage from a crisis than to tell your own story. “No comment” is probably the worst and last thing you want to say in these situations. Know the facts, then make spokespeople available to communicate them. This not only builds trust with the public but also helps build credibility with the press.
Resolve the issue and communicate next steps
You can communicate all you want, but if you don’t fix what happened in the first place, you’ll just find yourself right back in crisis mode. Once the problem has been resolved and you’ve identified next steps, continue to communicate clearly and consistently. Once the YMCA and authorities figured out it was a mechanical issue, they communicated the fix, the timeline and how they were going to delay reopening the pool until everything was corrected.
While they did have a few parents question the timeliness of some of the Y staff calling 911, for the most part, the coverage was focused on the facts, the Y’s relatively effective handling of the incident and how they plan to address it. Their planning, transparency, and availability prevented the press from making assumptions and speculating on the unknown, which would have put the Y’s credibility and reputation at an even greater risk.
If you learn nothing else from this piece, hear this: Be prepared! If your organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan in place, begin the process today. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. At the minimum, identify potential scenarios, develop proactive responses, create messaging, and identify spokespeople. If you’d like help, Angel Oak would be honored to assist you.
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