Where there’s Smoke, There Needs to be Communication

Communication is Critical is a Crisis

Communication is Critical is a Crisis

In the past three weeks, I have been involved in two events related to fire.

The first involved an emergency at my daughter’s middle school.  At 2:15 pm on a Friday, all parents in our town received an automated phone message regarding an ‘incident’ at the middle school that lead to a full evacuation. While assuring that everyone was safe, no additional information was provided except that buses would be delayed.

Hold on, seriously? An incident? As a member of the Publicity Club of New England with nearly two decades of attending panel discussions on crisis communication, I know that this is not the best way to handle this situation. While I appreciate that they notified us, I was ready to take a $50 cab ride home to retrieve my baby girl from the dangers that surely were lurking at her school.

So I went to my resources – social media and a nosy neighbor. I hacked my daughter’s Instagram account to get first-hand updates from the school. Most of the kids were posting selfies from the playground and complaining that the teachers wouldn’t let them use their phones (get the irony of how I was getting that info?)

The nosy neighbor is plugged in to every breaking story in town so I texted her. Sure enough, she knew EXACTLY what happened- an 8th grader was playing with matches in the bathroom (possible cigarette) and tossed it into the garbage pail and it went up in flames. Fire alarms sounded and evacuation ensued.

Phew! My visions of terror were downsized to a dumb kid fooling around. Crisis averted…or maybe not. Concerned parents were universally annoyed (Facebook lit up) by the auto-calls and lack of details and the added panic it caused. As such, I’ve received several follow up emails related to the ‘incident’ that were disingenuous, apologies and request for feedback. It’s a start…but the residual damage is done.

My second emergency with fire was at my brand new office building, One Boston Place, where we work on the 23rd floor. At 1:00 pm Monday, we got the initial notification via the intercom system of a possible emergency in our building. They gave us instructions to be on standby and if we got the second round of alarms we would need to evacuate the building. When the second alarm sounded, we all went into action clearing out our office, contacting our back-up system, and heading to the stairwell. Twenty-three floors later, we were out on Washington Street along with 2,500 other tenants and five fire engines, several of which had their ladders up against the side of the building but there were no hoses spraying.

My team gathered together for a head count and eagerly awaited an update. There was no panic outside, the fire crews were focused but they also weren’t concerned that hundreds of people were in the courtyard where they were working. This was a relief.

As time progressed, I checked my email and messages for updates from the building. For the first hour, we had no notification which was surprising. So we turned to Twitter.

I tweeted:

Karen Reynolds ‏@LeGallo  Sep 22: Fire at #onebostonplace. #evacuated#gladitsniceout#bostonfdrockspic.twitter.com/U74FyYZGHs

Someone else tweeted:

George Kokoros ‏@beavisthegreek  Sep 22: My building evacuated due to fire in fifth fl walls. bnymellon #onebostonplacehttp://instagram.com/p/tQeHjmya69/ 

Meanwhile, media started to arrive and take an interest in the story. In fact, they were also using Twitter to get information.  The result on Boston.com: http://fw.to/AMQEQdl  Check out the photo credits.

After two hours had passed, we received messages from the building providing updates we needed to finish our work day. We also received personal visits from the building management checking in to capture feedback on the process, etc. I found the building to be very responsive to what I shared with them and I felt everything was handled reasonably well.

I’d love to hear from the PR folks in the region. How would you advise to improve communication in both of these events?  Are my expectations too high? Any remedies for easing the sore calf muscles I have from going down 23 flights of stairs?

This post was written by Publicity Club Treasurer, Business Wire Boston Regional Manager, and published, amateur photographer Karen Reynolds.

Twitter: @legallo