By Paul Nowell
It really hasn’t been that long since there was no Facebook or Twitter to keep public information officers on our toes.
Much in this same vein, another new practice has become a necessary regiment for those in charge of managing the flow of vital information: crisis communications training. And much like social media, one of the biggest challenges in this arena is to stay on top of the latest technologies and strategies.
This is one big reason why a recent two-day training course, held on the UNC Charlotte campus, was so invaluable. Offered by the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, the training was rigorous and spot-on in terms of relevancy.
I had the opportunity to attend this training session at the Harris Alumni Center with some of my colleagues on the University communications staff and the Police and Public Safety Department (PPS).
Obviously, this was not our first foray into crisis communications training. Over the last several years, we have conducted several tabletop exercises at the University and even one “live-shooter” exercise involving real police officers, fire trucks and sirens. Only the bullets and injuries were simulated.
In the wake of tragedies at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and others, crisis communications training is now incorporated into our professional persona.
It would be inaccurate to suggest I enjoy these training courses and exercises. No one chooses to think about the day when this work morphs from a purely academic exercise into stark reality.
Then again, none of us are naïve enough to think bad things can never happen on our watch.
With this in mind, I am grateful to have the opportunity to prepare for these scenarios. The instructors were well-versed in the latest communications methods and practices and they shared their lessons without patronizing any of us who were there to learn.
The UNC Charlotte participants were joined by more than 35 PIOs and other representatives of the city of Charlotte, the region and the state – ranging from the FBI, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, county governments and the Charlotte Area Transit System – at a rigorous FEMA crisis communications course at the Harris Alumni Center.
The sessions were lively and demanding. The instructors talked about the importance of establishing and operating a Joint Information System (JIS) and a Joint Information Center (JIC). While these terms might read like more bureaucratic slang, their value cannot be overestimated.
The only way for an institution such as UNC Charlotte to manage a large-scale crisis is to learn how to manage the flow and demand for information. University PIOs cannot be expected to handle the size and scope of the situation without help from counterparts with area police, fire, MEDIC, hospitals, utilities, the county, the state – perhaps even the federal government.
Another takeaway from the latest course was that in the end it is our crisis and our stakeholders who must be our top priority. When the police and fire trucks leave the scene, we will still be here after the storm.
So we must remember to stay in control during – and after – the smoke clears.
Paul Nowell is media relations manager at UNC Charlotte.