This is, admittedly, a difficult subject to discuss. To acknowledge that atrocities are carried out by human beings against other human beings is deeply painful. It’s necessary, though, to be courageous and realistic in confronting an issue if it happens at your organization or school. Active shooter crises are devastating and unpredictable events. We can’t predict them – but we need to be prepared for them. While the violent crime rate is dropping nationally, the incidence of mass shooting events has sharply increased in recent years, according to a new study.
Information is available to help companies, schools, or universities create an operations plan that can be enacted in the event of a crisis. This article from Xpert HR is a good place to start.
Our focus is not on the operational and security aspects of crisis preparation. But in today’s world, part of a crisis operations plan must include communications – with the media, with your employees, and with the public. We want to prepare you to communicate in these situations, even as we hope that your plans are never put to use.
With that in mind, here is our crisis communication outlook on how to prepare for an active shooter.
This conversation can largely be framed around the stages of crisis communication:
Who is your audience? You’re asking the same questions as a reporter – what happened? Who was affected? Where was it?
Your focus on this stage is in keeping the issue confined to the smallest geographic area, the smallest amount of people, and the shortest timeframe possible. This becomes increasingly more difficult in the age of social media.
During this stage, your focus is on getting to the people who need to hear from you with good, solid information.
You have investigated, know what needs to change and are focused on fixing the problem and letting your audience know that you have done so.
The prize you win if you do the other four steps correctly. People may remember the crisis, but they no longer hold it against you.
Note that these stages, while roughly chronological, can also happen concurrently. So, you may be identifying the crisis as you work to contain it, and you may be called upon to communicate information to people while you are investigating.
The Identification and Containment Stages: Protecting Your People
During a crisis, your primary responsibility as an organization is to protect your people. For a school, this means protecting your students and teachers. For companies, this means protecting your employees. Having a communication plan is an integral part of keeping your people safe.
During one recent shooting, there was criticism of a school that didn’t have an alert system set up to notify students of the developing crisis. This meant that students who weren’t aware of what was going on showed up to class, right in the midst of an active shooter situation. A communication plan for crisis alerts easily could have prevented this.
One common option for an alert system is text-messaging software. There are a variety of choices, but regardless of what you use, make sure that you’re prepared to protect your people and contain the situation by communicating quickly and efficiently.
No matter how you choose to communicate, you’ll need to share this plan with everyone in your organization, and then prepare and practice how to use it. Preparation can make or break the outcomes of the following stages.
The Communication Stage: Get Good Information Out
Likely the biggest reason that organizations are criticized in the wake of a crisis is for a failure to communicate well with those who’ve been affected. The families of those who’ve been involved in a crisis will want to know immediately if their loved ones are safe. The public will want to know what’s happened.
The worst thing that you can do during this time is to be unprepared to distribute solid information.
Provide Information to the Families of Loved Ones
That’s why you should prepare well in advance by setting up avenues for people who are safe to contact loved ones. This is a natural human instinct, and if you create an efficient channel ahead of time, the flow of information can be managed efficiently in a way that reassures loved ones.
Due to the sensitive nature of a crisis, you may want to take a more controlled approach to distributing information, depending upon the situation. Having contact information for all employees is essential, as is determining ahead of time the process by which you’ll communicate.
In the age of social media, there may be people who evacuate who know who has been shot or who is being held hostage. You don’t necessarily want them to tweet or text their friends’ families with this information – it can cause panic. Educate your employees on proper communication protocol, but also be prepared to distribute information quickly with the expectation that information will get out regardless of what you do.
Make sure that you have communication protocols set up, and train your people on them. That way, when a crisis happens, they’ll be prepared to communicate appropriately. News will inevitably end up on social media, but if you’re prepared to help manage appropriate channels, you’ll be able to contribute more to the flow of information.
Distribute News to the Public
The second aspect of this stage is distributing news to the public.
Remember, anytime there is an active shooter or a crisis, it becomes breaking news. Reporters will show up, and they’ll be looking for any sources of information that seem credible. It’s not a question of whether or not the story will be told – it’s a question of how it will be told.
Don’t view the reporters hanging around the scene as just one more issue to deal with. Instead, use the press to alert your audience, and view reporters as a conduit for distributing your information to the people who need to hear from you. If someone from your organization doesn’t assume the role of spokesperson, the media will quickly find somebody else to take the role – and that person may not always present your organization in a positive light.
On the other hand, if you are delivering credible information, you’ll be able to take a bigger role in telling the story from your organization’s perspective. People will immediately want to know: When will the building reopen? Am I safe? If you can be the source of information about the crisis, you can control the messaging and better protect everyone involved. Whether you do this through broadcast, social media, or both, distribute good information so that you can inform well.
Toyota has done a good job of this in the past. In the aftermath of a vehicle recall, Toyota quickly distributed a good, solid statement on the cause of the recall and its effects. It put this information in the hands of all of its employees, through email, and told them that they could forward the email to explain to their friends and families what had happened.
Tip: As you distribute information, remember to show empathy. It’s not just a good PR move – it’s also the right thing to do.
Don’t Discuss Correction – Yet
Finally, remember that during the communication stage, you are not yet trying to correct a problem. Don’t answer, “what went wrong?” during the early stages of communication.
Instead, emphasize that your focus is on ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Establish yourself as a credible source of information by presenting what is known. Remember that it’s okay to say that you’ll be investigating the situation further, and that you’ll get back with more information when you know more.
The Correction Stage: You are a Victim with Responsibility
As an organization affected by a crisis, you are certainly a victim. It may be impossible for you to foresee an active shooter or other crisis situation. There may be nothing you can do to prevent it.
However, human nature is to rationalize what has happened, and it’s often easier to comprehend preventative measures that could have been taken than it is to understand the motivation of the person who committed the act. Because of this, you’re an easy target to blame.
Why weren’t there locks on the doors that the shooter entered through? Why didn’t you have a metal detector in place at entrances? In the wake of a crisis, people will point the finger at you for failing to prepare, even if the crisis was unforeseeable.
This is when you enter the correction stage. It’s important to communicate clearly what you have done or are doing to address the current situation and prevent future issues. If you’ve assumed the role of spokesperson, you’ll be well equipped for this stage. Be sure not to enter this phase until the crisis is past and the police or authorities have reached at least some form of a conclusion. You can’t correct anything until you know the cause of what happened. Your role in the meantime is to assure that action will be taken once the report is out.
Sometimes, there’s an easy step to take (“we are installing metal detectors at the front door”). Sometimes, things aren’t as straightforward, but it’s important to communicate the action that you’ll be taking to give people peace of mind.
If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve communicated well in the wake of this crisis. This is the final stage of crisis communications. People may still remember the incident, but they no longer fear its recurrence, and they may not hold any negative feelings towards your organization. You’ve reached this phase because you took the right steps along the way.
The sad truth is that terrible things happen in this world, and you can’t afford to be naïve in believing that they will not happen to your organization. Crises are real, and realistic preparation is the best way to cope with them. It takes courage – but it’s worthwhile