When Disaster Strikes

It’s going to happen someday.

At some point your library will face a crisis. Perhaps it will be a non-lethal but worrisome issue–black mold found in study rooms or a power outage that lasts several days and closes several branches (that happened to my library!) Perhaps it will be more severe–a fire that destroys a branch, a violent argument between customers, or an administrator caught doing something illegal. As upsetting as it is to contemplate, it will happen–this I can promise you.

Your response to crisis in your role as the library spokesperson can make or break an organization. In my earlier life as a journalist, I watched it happen dozens of times. It’s heartbreaking to watch an organization fall apart in the midst of crisis. On the flip side, I’ve witnessed communicators who keep their organization afloat with amazing and inspiring work during scary and emotionally trying times.

The best thing you can do right now is to prepare. Here’s how.

Have a frank conversation with administration about disaster preparedness. They might feel uncomfortable having this conversation but make it clear that it’s necessary so that you can perform your job in the best way possible. It’s best to make decisions about how you’ll handle a crisis while you are calm and rational, because rationality and calm will fly out the window the minute a serious crisis threatens your workplace. As the communicator, it’s likely you will be front and center in the event of a disaster.  In order to do your job well, you need to be ready for anything.

Create a system-wide disaster communications plan. If your library doesn’t have one in place yet, now is the time to decide how a crisis will be handled.  Your library should assign employees to serve on a crisis communications team. This team will be responsible for gathering and disseminating information to internal and external audiences, including staff and the media. Decide who will be authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the library. Ideally, you’ll have one main spokesperson and a backup. Try to limit it to two people, or you’ll risk control of your message. The spokespeople need to be comfortable in front of a TV camera, credible, knowledgeable about the library, articulate, calm, and able to work with other agencies to coordinate responses. Set up a chain of communication so you know who will be notified first, second, and so on–and prepare for all contingencies. Conduct a yearly crisis drill with your team to make sure all the pieces work.  Need a disaster plan template? Fill out this form and I’ll email you one right away!

When it happens, be sure to communicate with your staff first, then the media. But do so quickly.  It’s not acceptable to wait until you know all the facts about your situation. By then, rumors will spread through social media by your customers and your co-workers and you’ll lose control of your narrative. If you don’t talk first and fast, reporters will start looking for workers and customers to interview.  As soon as you can, release a statement that outlines what happened and how you are responding to it. Include a number where reporters can call for more information. Promise to release new information as soon as it becomes available. And then follow through with that promise.

Be ready with scripted press releases. My disaster communications plan download includes several scripted press releases followed by potential questions from reporters. It is easiest to gather answers to these questions ahead of time when everyone is thinking clearly and when you can evaluate your responses to make sure you stay on message and on brand, without compromising the integrity of your library.

Don’t be afraid to say “we don’t know yet” or to refer questions to the investigating authorities. This is particularly true in criminal investigations.  Send reporters to the investigating agency for answers.

Prepare your staff for ambush interviews.  Warn your staff that they will likely be approached by a reporter wanting information. Train them to funnel all such requests through your designated spokesperson. And make sure your staff is informed about what’s going on. When they feel included, they’re more likely to use the proper procedures when confronted by a reporter.

Always having someone watching social media.  Designate one person to watch for any mention of your organization on social media channels. Have clear guidelines in place for how this person can respond to those mentions and comments.

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, click on “Follow” button on the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Connect with me on Twitter and Snapchat–it’s where I talk about library marketing! I’m @Webmastergirl. I’m also on LinkedIn, Slideshare,  Instagram and Pinterest. Views in this post are my own and do not represent those of my employer.