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Communicating in crisis

July 31, 2013
Ben Morgan

Benjamin Morgan, supervisor of crisis communication for the City of Calgary, compares the recent flood response in his city to a wedding.

“For people from the outside looking in, it was a beautiful show,” says Morgan, a student in the Master of Arts in Professional Communication (MAPC) program. “It was emotional, people were connected, there was pride in what they were watching. Nobody saw an hour before a heel had broken or a seam had ripped or there was a fight between the in-laws. What they saw was the beauty of the show, the presence, the final product. We pulled off the perfect wedding.”

Indeed, the City of Calgary has been recognized internationally as a leader in crisis response and crisis communication. While Morgan only joined the city in March – three months before the historic June 20 flood forced the evacuation of 100,000 people – he played a key role in communications surrounding the disaster.

“It was a tremendous learning opportunity,” says Morgan, whose first task in his new position was rewriting the crisis communication plan. “On June 19, I figured the plan draft was about 75 per cent complete. Now, I would say it is about 50 per cent complete. There’s so much learning that’s coming out of the recent events.”

For Morgan, learning has come in many forms. “Because I was new, I took the opportunity to play in a bunch of different roles,” says the former EMS superintendent and paramedic. Morgan took a leadership role in the emergency operations centre, toured media through the red no-go zone, developed messaging and liaised with other agencies, such as ENMAX Energy, the city’s major power supplier. He was a leader on a team of 90 communicators.

He also had the opportunity to put best practices into action. Operating under the mantra, “If we know, then Calgary needs to know,” Morgan and his team strived to keep Calgarians abreast of the latest developments. They did this by providing open, transparent information as it became available through a variety of channels. Mayor Naheed Nenshi was briefed up to three times a day and was frequently available for media interviews. Over the course of three weeks, nearly 150 media releases and advisories were produced, 1.1 million people visited the Calgary City News Blog and the city added 26,000 followers to Twitter. Several thousand people downloaded Calgary’s 311 app and received push notifications.

Morgan did his MAPC major research project on social media in crisis and says a lot of what he learned through his research was applicable to the flood. “It’s about leading the conversation,” he says, as an example. “Calgarians need to know where the real, authentic, accurate source of information is.” With its strong social media presence, the City of Calgary took a leading role and Morgan notes that had it not, another group or individual would have filled the gap. 

School of Communication and Culture director Jennifer Walinga notes the flood gave Morgan a unique opportunity to apply his learning to a real-world event. “The live Calgary case provides a perfect research focus,” she says. “Talk about living your learning.”

While traditional and social media played a large part in keeping the public informed, Morgan says some of the most important outreach efforts were made directly to flood victims.

“We ended up in the emergency operations centre in the communications room with a big poster that said, ‘Think like a flood victim,’” he says. “If your home has been flooded and you’ve been displaced, you’re not online, you’re not sitting at your computer. If you’re dredging or digging out, covered in mud, trying to get your personal belongings – is your cellphone charged? Are those displaced people at a recreation centre on a cot on Facebook searching to see what is going on? Probably not. Think like a flood victim.”

To help flood victims get the info they needed, evacuation centres – nine of them at the height of the disaster – were staffed with communicators 24-7. Morgan and his team also created door hangers containing informational inserts, which were delivered to affected houses.

While the speed at which 100,000 people were evacuated is the most obvious measure of success, Morgan judges his team’s performance on other elements.

“If you look at any crisis, the mood of the population tends to shift after about three or four days,” Morgan explains. “On day one, day two, the energy is very much, ‘Thank you for getting us out, thank you for keeping us safe.’ The danger is that then changes to, ‘Why didn’t you give us enough notice?’ ‘Why did you let this happen?’ But the energy and the mood in Calgary never changed for weeks and we believe that was because we kept people informed.”

Whether it was handmade cards by children in the emergency operations centre or a televised acknowledgement of appreciation by former NHL player and Calgary Citizen of the Year Sheldon Kennedy, it was clear people were grateful for the city’s efforts.

As Morgan prepares for the flood debrief, he reflects on the most important lessons learned: “A crisis communication plan is really only as good as the people you have around you,” he says. “The key to success in crisis communication is your team. It’s empowering them to use their expertise to think outside of the box. And it’s empowering people to do what they do best.”