In the Trenches with Crisis CommunicationsIn a couple of weeks, I am going to be speaking at Social Media Marketing World.

My topic?

In the trenches with crisis communications.

It’s one thing to armchair quarterback recent crises (hello, Crock-Pot) and quite another to provide concrete examples directly from the people who worked them.

In the next few weeks, I’ll highlight those examples here.

Today I want to start with a crisis from a competitive and highly-rated university program that prepares students for medical school.

How a Student Gave Five People HIV (Sort of)

This program allows students to gain hands-on experience in the medical field of their choice.

To do that, they travel to underserved areas both in the U.S. and globally to provide medical attention.

In this instance, the students were serving homeless veterans in a major urban area by providing health screenings.

The participants were weighed and their height was measured, and a finger prick was given to measure blood glucose levels.

A new lancet system was being used that had a cartridge of six sticks.

After each stick, the student was to change the cartridge to the next lancet with the thumb and listen for the “click” to indicate the cartridge had advanced to the new stick.

Previously they were using a single-use lancet.

The students were trained both in a classroom and at the location by practicing the finger prick on each other and on themselves.

After about five finger pricks on the “patients,” one student became concerned that the lancet had not been changed.

Three of the fingers were of homeless veterans and two were of student volunteers.

The combination of mixed blood put each individual at risk for HIV, HepC, and a host of other diseases.

The students went home to their hometown doctors and began anti-viral medications.

The communicator in charge of handling this crisis said:

Attempts were made to contact the homeless vets to let them know of possible exposure. It is a complicated crisis. The students have since hired lawyers.

The Crisis Communications Team Learned from a Journalist

As many crisis communications professionals know, learning about something like this tends to be almost too late.

While it could have been managed days earlier, this particular communicator didn’t find out about it until a friendly TV news editor called her about it.

She said:

After I received the phone call, I did some digging internally. Then I returned the editor’s call and then explained it was a mistake. I outlined the steps we were taking to mitigate the risk for the five people involved.

Because of her relationship with this editor, the station agreed not to go wide with the story as long as there was follow-up and they were the first to know as things evolved.

If only things went according to plan…

A few days later, I received a call late at night, informing me that one of the vets went to the media in the city where the incident happened. We figured it would probably hit the 11:00 news.

I immediately called a meeting with all involved and we began working on the issue. We prepped talking points for all audiences. When it was clear the 11:00 news did not pick it up, I reached out to my friend at the station and promised an exclusive by noon the next day.

Who to Include in the War Room

The people in the war room included the vice president of advancement, student services, community relations, communications, risk management, and the attorneys.

The president was out of the country so they worked with him remotely to get is input and approval.

She said:

While keeping to the approved language, we pulled together similar messages for each audience. I set out a timeline to distribute. This included a video of the president saying he was deeply concerned and we are looking into the matter. It was more than a placeholder—it had some of the details. We posted that on the blog and referred media there. Most of the media used our video.

Internally, they had alumni communicate with other alumni, they sent email to faculty, staff, and students, and the president called every member of the board of trustees.

It Was Very Well-Orchestrated

While it was over and done with pretty quickly, they had 18 people working on it for a solid 10 hours, not including all the calls they fielded from producers and journalists.

In billable hours terms, that’s 180 hours in less than a day. Most agencies would charge close to six figures for that.

It’s not a small undertaking.

Of course, the university has a crisis communications plan, but never did they consider this scenario.

Amazingly enough, it was a small blip in the 24/7 news cycle.

It was released to the media on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week and the news spiked across the country that day, but it seemed to be over by the holiday.

As far as damage done, the crisis communications professional said it hasn’t seemed to hurt the university at a crisis level.

They’ve been able to keep it at an issues level because they’ve been transparent and open about the facts.

As soon as something new is learned, they let the media know—giving exclusivity to the TV station who brought it to their attention in the first place.

She said:

The roll-out was very well orchestrated so we were able to avoid all of the fury that usually accompanies a bad news story.

Six Lessons from the HIV Crisis

When I asked the crisis communications professional what she thought others could learn from this situation, she said:

  1. As soon as you get wind of a crisis brewing, get your team together immediately and prepare a statement. Don’t get caught in the fight between communications and legal because you waited too long.
  2. Set out a timeline for release that includes all audiences. Include everyone. It’s far better to have everyone know rather than ask why they were not told. Even people you don’t think will care, or understand.
  3. If your lead executive isn’t available live, get him or her on video immediately. Then continue to provide videos as you learn more and have more facts to share.
  4. Provide the same message to every, single person. The masters of disasters all say the same thing: tell everyone the same thing. Tell it first, tell it often, refer journalists to something on the web, and add video.
  5. Make sure you are in control of the email lists so you don’t have to rely on others to do your work for you. The email to students was sent six hours after everyone else learned about it. That wasn’t good.
  6. Make sure you have a statement drafted immediately. It took five hours to prep the initial statement because the attorneys were involved at that point. That was far too long.

Don’t wait until someone goes to the media ahead of you. Get a statement drafted immediately and get to work.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

The best part about all of this?

When I asked her what else Spin Sucks readers should know, she ended with this:

As soon as it became clear to me that the media was going to run with the story, I immediately reached out to the PR Dream Team for help.

Because crisis communications isn’t something I do every day, I was nervous about handling it without an expert. I was connected with the perfect person to help.

We worked virtually with her team, across the country, to put together questions that would be asked by all publics and I was able to circulate the questions and develop answers in a timely manner.

It would not have been possible without the PR Dream Team!

I could not have messaged that better myself!

In all seriousness, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you find yourself in the middle of a crisis.

It’s never a situation where you can go to Google and start reading about how to handle it.

And always be prepared. Have a crisis communications plan active and ready to go at all times.

It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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