After the Sago Mine incident, I think that it has become clear how important basic facts are in a crisis situation where we might serve as the main public communicator.
Once again, I was reminded last night how critical it is to check and double-check your facts.
The local San Antonio Red Cross Community Affairs Manager Trish Box and I were teaching a Public Affairs 1 class to a class of about 20 volunteers interested in helping with the public affairs function at the local chapter here in San Antonio.
I got involved with the Red Cross on 9-11 when I was working in Arlington near the Pentagon. You can read about that experience here (Being Counted in a Crisis PDF, p.p. 4-5) and about getting involved in PRSA's Power of Two program here.
In the middle of the training, Trish’s phone rang and it was WOAI, the local NBC affiliate, and the only station in town with a scanner.
They were calling about an apartment fire underway (read story and/or watch the video here) and asked Trisha to comment on the Red Cross response. Usually the fire department calls the chapter asking them to respond to fires as needed (which turns out to be 4-5 times per week).
The fire department had not yet called the chapter, so Trisha had to say we would call back when we had more information. This was a little frustrating since we knew the fire department would ultimately call.
Remember, this is right in the middle of a PA 1 class and a video we were watching about responding to an apartment fire and how to deal with the media at a shelter.
WOAI told Trisha that there were 34 units responding (meaning fire units), but one student in the class thought there were 34 apartments involved in the fire. I clarified this for her and instantly, the whole class saw a first-hand example of how easily information can get garbled as a crisis situation unfolds.
Trisha did respond to the scene, leaving me to teach the class alone, and it turned out that six apartment units were damaged (WOAI says at least four, but it was definately six), a terrible tragedy for the families, but not nearly the scale it seemed at first.
Later, after the class was over, I went to the scene and Trisha and I agreed, once again, that it is vital to get the information first-hand before responding to the media, no matter what pressure they might exert to “get a statement and get on the air.”
Plus, the coverage of the Red Cross response was pretty good, the message that the Red Cross is there when people need was loud and clear.