Planning for the unthinkable: Crisis comms after the Paris attack


A catastrophe on the scale of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris may seem remote from the daily life of most communicators.

Yet crisis communication requires professionals to think through the unthinkable, plan their response and prepare to manage information amid wild rumors, several experts say.

The events in Paris are horrific and troubling for civilized society, and the initial crisis response is one for physical and corporate security experts, says Andrew Gilman, president and chief executive of CommCore Consulting Group.

“For communications, the Paris attack is similar to natural disasters such as the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina and the shootings at Virginia Tech,” Gilman says. “It teaches that we must look at our crisis plans and make sure that they are up to date and using the best rapid technologies. For example, universities don’t rely on email to reach students in the event of a crisis or incident; most use text messages.”

Managing the rumors

Gerald Baron, chief executive of Agincourt Strategies, said the crisis demonstrates once again how social media plays a central role in the spread of the news—and of false rumors.

Baron’s daughter and son-in-law were in France and heading to Paris when the attacks occurred. (They emailed to say they were four hours south of Paris and safe.) He immediately checked out a live thread from Reddit to get the latest updates.

“To me, the main lesson once again is the importance of rumor management,” Baron says. “The thread I was following both reported rumors and corrected them as soon as possible.”

One rumor spread that a fire in Calais was part of the attacks, he says, heightening his family’s fears because it suggested that there were coordinated attacks elsewhere in France. Almost as soon as he saw the report, however, it was revealed on Reddit as a discredited rumor. The photos of the fire were from an earlier event, Baron says.

The primary message to official communicators is that rumor management is job one, Baron says.

“There will be so many sources of information, and the news media does not edit like they used to,” he says. “Immediacy is everything, and the official sources such as police and emergency management should be closest to the action, closest to the truth.”

Social media monitoring

These information offices must have a robust social media monitoring operation, Baron says. Their communication teams should be deeply embedded on the frontlines, where they can get the fastest information possible.

Brad Phillips of Phillips Media Relations likewise mentioned the inaccurate nature of early reports, such as one from NBC News stating that one of the members of the band Eagles of Death Metal was killed in the Bataclan Concert Hall attack. The victim was later revealed to be their merchandise manager, not a band member, Phillips says.

“Anyone using social media during a crisis can help by being judicious with the initial reports they choose to share,” he says. “Click on the source. Look at the comments to see if anyone has revealed an obvious flaw with the information contained in the tweet. If you’re not certain, it’s best to simply express solidarity with and sympathy for the victims instead of unintentionally becoming part of the misinformation machine.”

Several experts say the tragedy will accelerate the use of Facebook’s Safety Check feature. “One of my sons was reassured about the safety of his sister by checking their Facebook page and seeing where they were,” Baron says. “These tools become vitally important in this kind of event.”

Corporations are likely to follow in Facebook’s footsteps, Gilman says. “Expect that private businesses will develop internal versions of Safety Check,” he says.

In a blog post about the Paris attacks for Marsh, an insurance broking and risk management company, Chandra Seymour writes that communications are an essential element of a greater crisis response.

“You may potentially have to reach out to employees, customers, investors and others,” Seymour writes. “During a crisis, it is critical that your company’s messages and communications are linked to reinforce the overall strategies and decisions made by the crisis management team.”

The events in Paris also show that organizations should be make their crisis plans available to team members on mobile devices via an app, Gilman says.

“The plans should include checklists, contact lists and instructions,” he says. “The key is to make sure that everyone in the organization checks in and is accounted for.”