9 Crisis Communications Best Practices

9 Crisis Communications Best Practices

By Michael Pinchera


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The American Physical Society (APS) cancelled its March Denver meeting due to novel coronavirus concerns—36 hours before the first sessions were to begin. The group explained this was done “out of an abundance of caution and in line with the public health strategy of containment,” noting that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had increased its risk assessment for China, Italy and South Korea. Of the event’s 10,285 original registrants, approximately 700 were to be coming from one of those countries.

“Even more [attendees] were coming from countries where the virus appears to be establishing itself in the general population, so that the warning level could rise during the course of the meeting, which might significantly delay their return travel or even lead to quarantines,” APS said in a statement elucidating its decision. “APS leadership and planners determined the risk of transmission and infection among closely interacting meeting attendees, staff, vendors and the Denver community was too great to ignore. At a meeting with many thousands of participants, some will inevitably fall ill. Had the meeting proceeded as scheduled, it would take time to establish whether an illness is seasonal flu or COVID-19, and many attendees who have come into contact might need to be quarantined during the testing. Many conference sessions and social events would have had to be canceled out of caution.”

Dr. Michael Biercuk, director of the Quantum Control Laboratory at the University of Sydney and founder and CEO of Q-CTRL, was at the airport, ready to begin the 8,300-mile trek to Denver, when he learned that the APS meeting was off.

“I managed to cancel my flight 10 minutes prior to boarding from Australia,” he said.

The last-minute cancellation of this event meant that some of the 10,000-plus registered—students, educators and physicists from all over the world—were already in Denver or on their way when the meeting was axed. The APS says 83 attendees had checked in onsite by the time the event was officially cancelled; 671 attendees had cancelled individually prior to the official cancellation.

Meanwhile, a group of would-be attendees, including Biercuk, took it upon themselves to ensure the valuable information that would have been shared at the APS meeting could still be dispersed.

“We started virtualmarchmeeting.com as a way to support the community as it tried to figure out how to cope with the cancellation,” he said.

Partnering with a webinar service that supports live recording, that site went live with a small selection of presentations that were to be delivered at the APS meeting, the day after the meeting was originally scheduled to begin.

“The move is community driven,” he said. “We’re in consultation with APS leadership, but [virtualmarchmeeting.com] is not, at this time, a formally ‘sanctioned’ event.”

Luckily, APS didn’t appear to take offense at this grassroots effort or view it as an adversarial move by the community to wrest control away from the society. All parties instead focused on fostering the exchange of information important to the physics landscape.

“The cancellation of the meeting has left a substantial hole within the broad physics community,” an APS statement explained. “APS will be providing an option for presenters to share their research online. Many spontaneous initiatives are also forming.”

Biercuk has been pleased with the quantum tech community’s response to the last-minute virtual sharing alternative.

“Hopefully, this initiative will help mitigate the impacts of the cancellation of APS,” he said.

No one can justifiably fault the APS for making a bold move that it felt was necessary to safeguard its member base and the community of Denver, but the timing was unfortunate.

“While APS regrets that the timing of this decision has significantly inconvenienced many members of the physics community, it firmly believes it was necessary to avoid a potential incident that could have led to widespread quarantine in Denver for up to 14 days,” the APS statement said.

Earlier and more extensive communication with the entire community could potentially have resulted in a less disruptively timed final decision—though some circumstances are simply unavoidable.

To limit disruption and stakeholder blowback, meeting and event professionals must excel at crisis communications. Following are some best practices worth implementing into your communications strategies as a result of the novel coronavirus—but applicable across the board.

Communicate Across Multiple Platforms

Utilize every way in which you typically communicate with your attendees—email, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, Twitter, etc.—to ensure everyone hears your important messages. You need to lead the conversation and be the source for information related to your event. If you’re unable to do that, the community will step in to fill the void and you won’t be able to control the messaging.

Be Clear and Consistent

Because you’re leveraging multiple platforms when getting out the word about the status of your event, it’s essential that the information provided is consistent. This is nothing new for planners, but when dealing with things that may change on a daily basis, consistency can become more of a challenge.

Share Updates Early, Regularly

Communicate important updates to all stakeholders as soon as possible. Overall, this will make things easier and less hectic for both you and attendees. As much as you can, avoid making last-minute proclamations that may upend attendees’ plans. As evidenced in the APS example, this isn’t always something that you can control, but be mindful of the timing when evaluating major decisions, such as cancellation or postponement.

Explain Changes to Norms

Inform attendees how the social norms at your event may have changed. Want to discourage handshakes and other forms of casual social contact that can spread germs? Don’t be afraid to tell attendees—if everyone is on the same page, they won’t feel as strange when avoiding the out-stretched hand of a professional peer. The same applies to norms related to using sterilizing gel and avoiding touching your face.

Tell the Truth

Sometimes the reality of a spreading contagion can mean a financial loss for your organization’s events. Do not, under any circumstances, mislead your stakeholders as to the associated risks. Based on the available data, this novel coronavirus has a case fatality rate that is significantly higher than that of the seasonal flu, although it’s not yet as widespread. You’ve got a duty of care responsibility when it comes to the safety of your attendees and staff—communicating false or misleading information could make your organization liable should an outbreak manifest onsite.

Have Compassion

If attendees do not feel comfortable traveling or spending time at densely populated venues due to a rise in communicable disease transmission, consider offering no-penalty refunds. Sure, this is an inconvenience and may cost your organization when it comes to F&B guarantees, room blocks, etc., but if attendees wishing to cancel feel they’re being punished for something out of their control, your brand reputation could take a hit—and there’s certainly a cost to that.

Explain Contingency Plans

First off, you should make it clear in no uncertain terms that anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms should not attend. Explain the processes in place should someone start exhibiting such symptoms while onsite.

Be Available to Answer Questions

Endeavor to have staff available online and onsite to answer attendee questions and concerns. If this necessitates expanding the team that fields such communications, look inside your organization to gauge if staff can appropriately be re-assigned to handle such outreach; perhaps trusted volunteers from your attendee base can help as well.

Provide Resources

No one expects your organization to reinvent the wheel and attempt to be the clearing house for novel coronavirus information, but you should provide clear, relevant guidance from trusted sources, such as the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and local health officials at the intended destination.


Michael Pinchera is an award-winning writer and editor for The Meeting Professional as well as a speaker, technologist and contributor to business, academic and pop culture publications since 1997. Read more of his work at www.whatmemeworry.com.

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