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Communication under pressure

This online article�is part of a series of social media posts on crisis communications, curated by the editorial staff of Security Management�and authored in part by security professional Lorraine Homer. Throughout the week, check�Facebook?, Twitter,LinkedIn?, and ourwebsite? for more from this series.�

Communicating during a crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity for organizations to inform the public and other stakeholders of up-to-date information. However, there are risks involved in such communication, and that risk picture only broadens when one considers how quickly misinformation can be reposted and regenerated thousands of times over with the click of a button. And for some organizations, lives may be at stake during a crisis, making the necessity of having a handle on one's communication strategy truly critical.

I've handled many major crises, from the Boxing Day tsunami to the London subway bombings, and have seen up close how the evolution of the media landscape has changed the way these events play out. Recently, I acted as senior advisor to London's Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) during a major counterterrorism exercise. This organization handles situations on a daily basis that other companies might consider a full-blown communications crisis. The exercise, "Strong Tower," looked at how police, government, and other emergency and security services would handle a marauding firearms attack similar to recent events in Paris and Tunisia.

Specifically, the scenario tested a largescale terrorist firearms attack taking place in central London across different sites. The attack began with a group of heavily-armed terrorists storming a tube station ticket office, shooting indiscriminately at police officers, members of the public, and London Underground staff. Many dead or injured persons were left in their wake. This opening salvo played out loudly, visibly, and horrifically on a busy street in the middle of a typical London morning, in full view of commuters, tourists, office workers, and others just going about their business. The two-day scenario tested many aspects of the emergency service response, from police firearms capability to how the ambulance service can reach and treat casualties in such a dangerous situation.

The Met put simulated social media platforms at the center of the exercise, and we fed in complex and significant pressures from information generated by the public, as well as by news media�all role-played. This engaged and informed the decision-making of the most senior people involved, just as it would if the scenario were real. While the "action" was playing out on the streets of the capital, behind the scenes the communication teams of the MPS, London Fire Brigade, London Ambulance Service, and many other operational agencies and government departments were getting to grips with how to handle the swaths of information coming in.

While simulation can never totally capture the real pressures and challenges of a full-blown crisis, it helped to raise the types of questions that should be asked during a real-life event. The communication teams have to consider what to say when little is known; how to verify information when nothing is clear; and how to reassure when an incident is far from over. In a critical incident, the priority is to protect and save lives. Communications plays a critical role by providing the messages that can both warn and inform. The opportunities that social media present for this are evident and Exercise Strong Tower gave these a solid test. For example, in the scenario, communications teams had to consider how to reach the relatives and loved ones of commuters on the London Underground who may be unable to communicate from the Tube. The exercise made us think about who the audiences may be during an incident, and how to get out particular messages to them. Running the exercises on a simulated platform will help teams manage what types of information is coming in and how to sort through it.

Such a rehearsal can serve as confirmation that the plans you have put into place work�and if they don't, it's an opportunity to find out where the gaps are or where the weak points are. Thinking outside of a crisis situation about how we can address these problems is imperative, so that when the crisis actually comes around, we are much better prepared.

In addition to the exercises, applying five simple but essential rules to crisis communications planning�write it, know it, practice it, learn from it, update it�makes success more likely no matter what challenges arise. And in a social media world where timing is critical, that should be every organization's goal.

Lorraine Homer is the director of U.K.-based Nightingale Consultants and has more than 20 years of experience as a strategic communications professional. She also serves as an independent advisor to the London Metropolitan Police.�