22-Apr-2013

By Jonathan Tremblay

Communications professionals around the world share some common challenges but some situations are unique to the work we do in Saskatchewan. Especially when we look outside and consider this unending winter, the practice of issues management and crisis communications is a specialty within many Saskatchewanian organizations.

SaskPower has been operating since 1929 and today, serves nearly 500,000 households as a full-service electric company responsible for the generation, transmission and distribution of power in the province. Leading SaskPower's media relations and presence on Twitter is Tyler Hopson, IABC member since 2010. Hopson had a relatively calm 2012, but could have gone without the severe storms and power outages of unprecedented size that hit Saskatchewan in late June. With more than 200,000 Saskatchewanian households without power and with wind speeds that uprooted trees and tore the roofs off houses across the province, it was not a ‘‘normal’’ summer week.

''The situation put all of our employees to the test, as the damage to SaskPower infrastructure was wide-reaching and in some cases, severe.'' Hopson was not new to communicating during a crisis but found the task of communicating fast-changing information to media and half-a-million people in a timely manner, very difficult. ''Because the damage was so widespread, we were often missing details and specific information about the different locations to begin with.'' Accordingly, with up to 3,000 calls an hour coming in from customers, time was of the essence.

Hopson focused on the basics of communications as the crisis evolved: he aimed for speed and accuracy in constant communication with the media. ''Phone calls from the media began as early as 3 a.m. I was embedded into SaskPower's command centre for restoration activity for four days.'' With regular phone interviews with media and up to three news releases a day, Tyler was getting no sleep but the people were getting the information they needed.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. ''After the storms, we recognized that our crisis communication strategy for power outages needed to be updated and revised to be better prepared if and when a similar situation happens again,'' Hopson stated.

The need to evaluate the success of any strategic communications plan is always sound advice and in the case of crisis planning, doubly-so. ''We've developed a series of messaging templates to allow us to get information out more quickly. We've strengthened our process maps to better identify who does what in a crisis situation. We also knew that we had to do better in social media. So, we launched an official SaskPower channel (www.twitter.com/saskpower) to report real-time outage information to customers, and to provide other important announcements.''

In the end, Hopson learned a lot from such a major event and other organizations can learn from it as well. He tells us that social media must be a tool in today’s crisis communications; that inter-agency communications between emergency services, government agencies and crown corporations must be better understood to work together during a crisis; and that communicating internally with employees was as crucial as external communications in order to convey consistent, clear and reassuring messaging. Hopson says that communications work in Regina has its particular advantages, ''Many communications professionals know each other or have crossed paths. It's generally quite easy to pick up the phone and ask for help, and I find that people in Saskatchewan are happy to pitch in when they're needed.''

So plan for potential crises using the many tools available (see below), evaluate and update the plans in place and don't forget to network through IABC; it could come in very handy some day.  

To get you started, here are eight questions that media always ask in a crisis*:

  1. What happened?
  2. Who is in charge?
  3. Has the situation been contained?
  4. Are victims being helped?
  5. What can we expect?
  6. What should we do?
  7. Why did this happen?
  8. Did you have forewarning?

*(Ducharme, Diane T. Crisis Management Manual and Communication Resource Guide. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University, 2010)