By Carl Mavromichalis
Managing Director, Converso and Associate,
CS&A Crisis Management International
What if I told you that there is technology available that can handle a live, 2-way conversation with hundreds or thousands of participants at once without hearing everyone talking at the same time? And what if I told you that you could call them all, rather than them having to call in? This does exist and it has been an incredible tool when used in a major crisis.

The city of Fort McMurray was evacuated May 4, 2016, just before a massive forest fire hit the city. The damage caused by the fire became Canada’s costliest natural disaster ever, with approximately 2,200 structures within the city destroyed. The total is estimated to have cost C$3.5-billion.

The forced evacuation of 90,000 people with no casualties directly related to the fire was truly miraculous. But the government then faced an enormous communications challenge – how exactly does one communicate with that many people who have dispersed across the province and the country to provide critical information? Add in the fact that many people needed support accessing basic human necessities, and the situation again had the potential to be catastrophic.

Government leaders were communicating through traditional channels, like the media, to inform the evacuees of the latest developments, the status of the fire and plans for re-entry. The government was also very active on social media. But all of these channels did not enable a means by which the government could speak directly, and only, to evacuees. So the government turned to Converso’s Virtual Town Halls, a mass-scale conferencing technology that essentially turns the phone system into a live talk-show.

The system proved so useful that the government ran 17 events in 30 days during the evacuation period, leading up to re-entry. Each session was 90-minutes long (rather than the normal 60 minutes) and had extremely high participation and engagement rates compared to non-crisis events. The government’s priority was to allow evacuees to ask questions of the nearly 15 government officials and partner organizations (e.g. Canadian Red Cross) who gathered for each call. And ask questions they did – over 8,000 through 17 events.

This is an extraordinary example, and it clearly illustrates the point that a direct channel to tens of thousands of people impacted by a disaster is a remarkably powerful tool. And the participation rates prove it was invaluable to evacuees as well.

The top five reasons you should consider mass-scale conferencing technology as part of your crisis management plan are:

  1. There is no replacement for a direct information channel to your most important stakeholders during a crisis. 
  • Evacuees heard directly from government officials with the most up-to-date knowledge of the situation, including status of the fire, location of evacuation centres, how to access emergency funding, etc.
  1. Helping people understand what is happening and resolving their issues is critical.
  • Through the question asked by evacuees, the government and Red Cross were able to start resolving individual cases that participants raised. For example, accessing emergency funding from Alberta while not in the province.
  1. Ensuring you get the right information out quickly.
  • Having all of the government leaders responsible for the crisis response on the town hall meant that the most accurate and timely information available was received by evacuees in an unfiltered way. These were the same leaders speaking with the media to provide updates, and evacuees had a direct channel to them.
  1. Dispelling misinformation.
  • On nearly every event, evacuees brought up matters that they had heard on social media or through friends and family. If the information was inaccurate, the government was able to clarify and correct it for everyone on the town hall. For example, people had been hearing rumours that looting was happening in the city, but the police, who were on the call, corrected the information and confirmed there were no break-ins.
  1. Understanding clearly what issues or challenges stakeholders are struggling with during the crisis.
  • There is a massive need for information in any crisis, particularly the kind that threatens the well-being of stakeholders. With 1,000 question requests in the first event (about 35 were answered), evacuees were in acute need of information. By capturing the questions and forwarding a file the next day to the government, highly-targeted FAQs were created and guided messaging for media activity and call-centre briefings.

As with most matters, preparation is everything in a crisis. The Government of Alberta had experience using this technology during non-crisis times, which made its application during the crisis so successful. Such tools are designed to facilitate communication during crises. Therefore, organisations considering this technology must ensure they are familiar with it before the crisis strikes – because during is the wrong time to learn.

While this example demonstrates how a government very effectively handled a disaster response situation, this technology would be equally valuable to companies experiencing a crisis.

  • Employee Communications – engaging with hundreds or thousands of employees across vast geographies in a controlled, live, two-way conversation during a crisis would enable the response team and company leadership to ensure accurate information is disseminated in very quickly.
  • External Stakeholder Communications – should a crisis impact a community (think a train derailment or chemical leak) or key segment of your business (think VW and its dealers during the diesel emissions scandal), the technology would enable an immediate and live connection with those impacted. This would reduce rumours, demonstrate the company is taking the issue seriously and, long-term, protect brand and reputation.
  • Post-Crisis Business Continuity – once the crisis is contained and the company stabilized, how do you get everyone back on track? How do you rebuild trust and reputation? Connecting with employees and external stakeholders to explain what exactly happened, how things have changed and what the company’s plans are in the future to manage crisis situations, which would have been a great tool for BP following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Adding this tool into your crisis response toolbox will ensure that you have the best chance at getting your most critical messages out quickly and consistently, directly to the people impacted by a crisis. This will ultimately help improve information distribution, reduce confusion and, hopefully, reduce suffering or save lives.

If you have any questions or thoughts on this article feel free to contact Carl at carl@converso.co and 416-420-2352

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