On Wednesday, April 19 Harding University conducted its annual disaster drill. The drill simulated a multi-vehicle accident involving a University bus carrying students to a sports tournament in Texas. The local fire department brought out the Jaws of Life, and the hospital even flew out a rescue helicopter. My entire Public Relations Tactics class was invited to accompany the PR professionals at Harding to observe the event and watch how they handled the situation.
The most important thing I learned was the specifics about timing. We were told that ideally, the University would know about any disaster situation before the media and/or the general public. The company/organization involved in a disaster should be the first to make a statement about it. However, there are instances in which local authorities or the media will contact you first, and the second that that contact is made, you’re on the clock. At Harding, they said that as soon as they learn about an incident they have one hour to prepare a statement. Another thing you have to watch out for is social media. We were told that it is becoming more and more common to find out about a situation because someone who saw it or was involved in it posted about it on social media. Regardless of how the situation is made known to the school, they still have a one-hour deadline.
Another thing I learned about crisis communication is that in the event of casualties, the local authorities MUST be the one to tell them, they cannot find out about it any other way. If that means you have to call the Denver Police Department to inform them of a casualty, then you call the Denver Police Department. Also, it was stressed heavily that you never tell the family about the loss of a loved one over the phone. If they ask you, tell them that the situation is being investigated, and you or someone with the proper authority will let them know as soon as possible, and then you let their local authorities tell them in person.
It truly was a blessing to be able to watch PR professionals handle a disaster and the crisis communication involved in real time.