Parkland, Pulse, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, and now, Maryland. The frequency of mass shootings has given crisis communications a whole new relevance. If you think mass shootings are occurring more often, you’re right. Data from an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa shows that mass shootings (defined as shootings involving four or more deaths) are not only happening more often, the number of “ultra shootings,” which involve many more deaths, has skyrocketed since 2000.
Add to that the fact that social media allows the world to follow a crisis in real time, and you’ve got a whole new level of crisis challenges for today’s public relations and communications professional. Today it’s not about being prepared for “if” a crisis happens, it’s when.
What if that crisis happens when you’re just three days into a new job? That was the scenario for Jennifer Smith, APR, director of corporate communications for Broward Health. The health system, based in Fort Lauderdale, treated the victims of the Parkland shooting after a gunman opened fire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018.
Smith is a veteran communications professional who is no stranger to managing crisis, but says that Parkland was different.
“Parkland was our kids, it was our neighbors. It was our loved ones,” said Smith. “The reality was, we had a job to get done, so we quickly organized ourselves and we did the necessary things.”
Smith and her team worked around the clock to provide timely and transparent updates to the news media. She believes a key tactic that helped her successfully manage the throngs of journalists who set up satellite trucks and mobile offices on the hospital campus for days on end was conducting daily media rounds.
See how rounding on the media helped Broward Health manage a mass shooting crisis here.
New issues for today’s crisis communicators
Smith points out that due to the reach of social media, brands often have to manage a crisis within a crisis, which was the case when the hospital received some backlash after the White House published photos of the president’s visit to Broward Health.
This crisis within a crisis scenario makes it critical for brands to pre-plan how they will work with multiple entities on communications strategies during crisis situations.
Another new crisis issue that Smith dealt with is the hospital having less control over the release of patient information due to some patients hiring their own attorneys and PR firms. This made it challenging for the health system to be able to communicate even the basic information typically released during a crisis such as this.
“Our hands were tied with that and it was a little bit challenging in many instances to work with these outside bodies. We just had to recognize that sometimes, even though there was a story to share, we had to let it go,” said Smith.
With the new challenges faced in navigating a crisis today, communicators should revisit their crisis plan regularly and be open to updating it as the world continues to change.