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How should local organisations respond to crises?

A few weeks ago a woman died at my local netball competition.

Thankfully, I wasn’t there to witness the event. I play socially with friends at the local competition every Tuesday night. As I was pulling out of my driveway at 8.00pm for an 8.30pm game I received a text message from our team captain advising us that our game had been cancelled due to an ’emergency’. As is natural in a situation like that, I shrugged, assumed the ’emergency’ had something to do with the physical state of the facility (it’s in an area prone to heavy flooding and falling trees) and went back inside to enjoy the rest of my Tuesday night.

Thanks to Facebook, we found out what had happened a couple of hours later. Of course we only heard the bare facts, presented to us the same way that the Facebook grapevine of third-degree contacts always works. A woman had died earlier in the night playing netball. Her sister was also at the game. The staff running the competition were distressed but handled the situation well. An ambulance arrived and pronounced the woman dead at the scene.

In addition to the fact that it shook all my notions about mortality and the frivolity of life (as events such as these are wont to do), it got me thinking about how organisations communicate in a crisis. Of course larger multi-national companies will always have a formal crisis communications plan in place, ready to implement at the moment an incident occurs. In most instances SMEs will also have at least considered how to best communicate with their publics in the event of an incident or crisis. But what of a small community organisation, run in the evenings by those who enjoy netball as a hobby?

The netball organisation didn’t release a formal statement on the Tuesday night, but thanks to the widespread and insatiable nature of online communications many members of the competition found out about the incident nonetheless. It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon, two days after the incident, that the organisation released an official statement.

An email was sent to every competitor informing them of the situation. The email described the situation where a player – who was standing at the far end of the court by herself and not involved in play at the time – collapsed in the middle of a game. Despite the revival efforts of the players and netball staff on-site the woman was not able to be revived and pronounced dead at the scene when ambulance crews arrived. The email stated that in an effort to maintain regularity the competition would continue next Tuesday, but counsellors would be on-site to provide assistance to any players who felt the need and that they encouraged all players to wear a black armband as a sign of respect.

This email was informative and respectful. It shifted blame for the incident away from the organisation (by stating the woman was not in play when she collapsed) but it did so in only a single sentence. Rather, the bulk of the 400 word email provided information about how the incident was handled on the night and how the organisation would continue to provide support for all affected players.

Most importantly, the email was written with a human voice. As a community organisation, all of the players knew the organisers of the competition, and their strategic response was wrapped within their warmth, personality and empathy. There was no strategic communication plan – only one email – to try to deal with the crisis. The event was not only a tragedy, but also a crisis that a small, local community netball competition could not have foreseen, and the organisers of the competition should be commended for their reaction to the tragedy.

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