There’s been a good deal of buzz about the value of incorporating social media, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, and the like, into BC/DR plans. Though you should be including social media in your planning, for both disseminating and gathering information, you must not ignore traditional media in your planning. This is particularly true of the broadcast media.
Picture yourself on the morning after a big snowstorm. Are you checking Facebook to see if the kids’ schools are open or if the roads are passable? Do you expect to get your local forecast from a Tweet? No, the chances are you’ve already received all of this information from your clock radio. Then, once you’ve managed to pry open your eyes, you’re probably heading to your television for a look at what you just heard.
What if that storm has knocked out your power? A little 9-volt battery will keep a radio going a lot longer than a rechargeable laptop, or cell phone, battery will hold its charge. Keep a few 9-volts handy, and that radio will keep on tickin’ for a week. Don’t expect to substitute a battery-powered television for that radio, by the way. When television stations switched to digital transmissions last spring those little analog TVs became useless without digital converters, and those converters need power.
Where Do People Get Their Crisis Information?
A study published in Human Ecology Review 2007, following two major wildfires near San Bernardino, Calif., found:
- People sought real-time information but rarely had access to it.
- Media and official information sources rarely provided the information that residents wanted.
- People actively searched for additional information through alternative sources.
Let’s take a closer look:
Real time information
Though there appears to be no formal research focusing specifically on the effectiveness of using traditional media to disseminate real-time information, local broadcasters seem to be the natural partners of business and government for this assignment. Most stations are on the air 24/7, most are already being viewed or listened to by the people who you are trying to reach, and you don’t need to use anything more high-tech than a phone to get your information to them. (If the phones are out you can even knock on their door). These stations have the ability to broadcast your news conference live or to do a live interview with your PIO on the phone. Few Web sites have the ability to do that. Even if they did, 1) the online audience is not yet accustomed to getting real-time information from a Web site and 2) that audience is fragmented. The local footprint of a local radio or television station is much larger, and the audience is likely to be more diverse than the audience of a single Web site.
Broadcasters of course are also the heart of the nation’s Emergency Broadcast System, a daisy chain of stations (over-the-air and cable) through which the National Weather Service and emergency agencies transmit real-time life safety information.
There is no faster way to push a message to the public, or to your employees, than to use local broadcasters.
Information that residents want
People want information that will allow them to make fast, intelligent choices about how to react to the situation. Should I return a recalled product? Should I get a flu shot? Is it safe to pick up my child from school? Should I evacuate? Making statements that are not specific enough (“travel might be difficult”), that don’t provide enough decision-making information (“Will I be allowed to travel on Route 1 if Route 2 is blocked?”), or that arrive too late to be of use will send people looking elsewhere for that information.
Broadcasters have always known that when viewers or listeners can’t find what they want, whether it’s entertainment or information, they are quick to flip the dial and search for it elsewhere. “Elsewhere” may be a neighbor or a co-worker. The information browsing might include Twitter, Facebook, or even a competitor’s Web site. Your social media planning pays off here, but that planning should not take place at the expense of providing accurate information quickly to traditional media.
Jumping the Information Hurdles
In January 2009, a severe ice storm hit Kentucky, knocking out power to parts of the state and disrupting communications, including cell phones and e-mail. One of the organizations that was trying to get information to the public was the Kentucky Outreach and Information Network (KOIN), and it found that was difficult to accomplish. A study of KOIN’s communications efforts, written in May 2009 by Jane Mobly Associates, reported these among its key findings:
- KOIN members relied heavily on cell phones for communication; however, there were several reports of cell phone disruption during and after the ice storm.
- KOIN members distributed weekend KOIN Alert messages slower than messages received during the week.
- E-mail messages distributed to KOIN members’ work e-mail addresses were sometimes received slower because of office closures.
- Translations were needed in communities where multiple languages were spoken.
- Approximately half of the survey respondents said their KOIN contact lists were up-to-date; however, those contact lists were not always available during the storm to those who needed them.
These findings support the use of broadcasters, particularly radio stations, to distribute vital information to employees, business stakeholders, and the public. Using broadcast stations for this task overcomes many of the communication’s obstacles that were just outlined:
- Most radio and many TV stations have generators, allowing them to broadcast during power outages.
- There is, for the most part, no weekday/weekend difference in the speed with which a broadcast station can get a message out to its audience.
- A radio broadcast will deliver your message to the people who need to receive it even if their telephones, cell phones, televisions, and Internet connections are down. All that a person needs is a battery-powered radio. This was evident most recently in Haiti, where radio broadcasts were, for all intents and purposes, the only method of getting information to earthquake victims.
- It doesn’t matter if your calling tree is out-of-date or you don’t have it with you. You don’t need to use one. (On the other hand, you also don’t have any method of determining who has received your message. This is definitely one-way communication.)
- You don’t need to be concerned about having your message go un-received because you’re sending it to a work e-mail address on a weekend or to a home address during the week.
- Your information can be provided to foreign-language radio stations in your community to reach non-English speakers.
Contacting Traditional Media
Identify your local news outlets and obtain contact information for their reporters and managers. Who you know, and how fast you can contact them, will make a significant difference in the speed with which your message is broadcast. It may also affect how your response is viewed by the public (i.e. whether you are seen as being on top of the situation and reacting quickly to it). Your DR plan should include a primary point of contact at each of these outlets and one or two backups.
Large city television stations usually have an assignment desk that will handle your call 24/7. TV stations in smaller cities and radio stations, except for big-city all-news stations, usually are not staffed 24/7. In fact, many radio stations only have a news person working in the “morning drive” hours of 5-10 a.m., weekdays. Still, others outsource their news broadcasts, giving the appearance of having a local news operation when, in fact, the newscaster may be hundreds of miles away. In these cases, you’ll want to obtain work, home and cell phone numbers for the person who is responsible for news at the station or, if the station doesn’t provide any news reports, for the program director. Try to create an agreement with one or more of these stations to broadcast your business-critical messages, just as they broadcast snow emergency closings for schools.
In Santa Barbara County, Calif., they’ve gone a step further: emergency planners and community officials have partnered with several radio stations to create what they call the Ready Radio system. Each of these stations has an emergency generator, and each has been provided with a satellite telephone so that, even if power is out and the regular telephone systems are down, they can receive emergency information from the county’s Office of Emergency Services. People in Santa Barbara County are encouraged to have battery-powered, or hand-cranked, radios to receive these messages.
It’s also important to make contact with a wire service, such as The Associated Press. AP is represented in every state and in more than 80 countries. A story that’s sent over the wire reaches broadcast, newspaper, and Web newsrooms around the world. Stories of only local or regional interest may be sent to only one or two states, but larger stories are sent nationwide or worldwide. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for the reach of other news services, such as Bloomberg and UPI.
In all cases, keep in mind that reporters and managers, particularly in the broadcasting industry, change jobs frequently. Keep your contacts list current.
Knowing how to reach the media in your community is only half of your task. It’s also important to establish a working relationship with key media managers before a crisis hits. Quickly getting through to a busy news director or reporter is essential in a crisis. You can’t afford to have that person wondering who you are, what you might want, or whether it’s worth the time to take your call. Taking some key newspeople to an off-the-record lunch to discuss your DR plan is a good way to begin. Inviting reporters to tour your facility can deepen this relationship.
Whether you’re trying to get information to your employees, your customers, your suppliers, or the general public the goal is the same: provide information that is accurate and current to a large group of people in a short amount of time. Broadcasters have a highly reliable, real-time information pipeline into homes, offices, and vehicles. You should take advantage of this by including those broadcasters in your business continuity/disaster recovery plans.
Ed Tobias is manager of business continuity and disaster planning for the Associated Press. Before moving to AP’s Global Security Department in July 2009, Tobias spent 28 years as a reporter, newscaster, and news coverage manager in AP’s Broadcast division. Prior to that, he was the news director at radio stations in Washington, D.C., and White Plains, N.Y.