Internal Communications and the Impacts on Disaster Management

Disasters present the ultimate challenge to emergency response capability. Time is of the essence, the usual communication pathways are generally disrupted, and the speedy mobilization of emergency equipment and responders may mean the difference between life and death. Even when the stakes are a lot less dramatic, an organization’s lack of effective crisis communication can have long-term negative impacts particularly when business continuity and operations as well as public trust are affected. 

Home to some of the world’s top players in the oil and gas industry, where safety concerns dominate, Calgary might be expected to have emergency preparedness down pat. Recent research by Ipsos Reid into nearly one-third of all Calgary-based corporations with 100 or more employees indicates that the majority of companies surveyed did indeed have an emergency response plan (ERP) in place prior to the June 2013 Southern Alberta floods.

Where these ERPs fell short, and continue to fall short, is in the vital area of communication with employees. Even when the companies surveyed rated their ERPs as effective, only 19% of respondents said they were able to reach employees or communicate well, and only 9% said that people knew what to do in the case of an emergency. Organizations clearly thought they were covered, but weren’t. 

Post-flood, the situation is not much better. Revised ERPs are still missing essential communications information (e.g. contact lists, roles and responsibilities, and steps for business continuity) even as corporations like The City of Calgary acknowledge the need for two things above all else in a crisis: 

  1. Reliable, secure and confidential alternatives for staff to communicate with each other; and 
  2. Immediate and reliable access for staff to key messages, especially when as a City communicator you are also a communicator to all Calgarians.

Presenting to the Canadian Public Relations Society in October 2013, The City of Calgary noted the usefulness of social media channels when communicating with media and Calgarians during the floods (e.g. Facebook worked well for networking and reaching Calgarians; Twitter for pushing out snippets of information; and YouTube for increasing the lifespan of information shared in media briefings). 

Social media, however, does not offer the confidentiality and security that effective internal communication needs, and using it or other online platforms can lead to confusion, with messaging intended only for internal consumption often getting picked up on by the media and general public (as happened when the City set up an online blog to communicate with staff which quickly became a news source for local media). 

The job now is to educate Calgary companies on how critical crisis communications plans are to effective emergency response, and to let them know that crisis communications plans can be more nimble in crunchtime with tools like RallyEngine in place. 

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