If the worst thing that has ever happened at one of your meetings is running out of coffee or having a piece of audiovisual equipment fail, then you should consider yourself very lucky — and long overdue for a more serious complication to occur.
Every day, meeting planners grapple with a variety of crisis or emergency situations, and the potential for these incidents to occur continues to grow. Whether it’s a case of injured or sick attendee(s), a physical threat to the meeting venue or host country (either natural or manmade), a global pandemic, or a case of malicious mischief against your organization, meetings are a prime location for crises to occur. Even the best on-site risk management can’t protect your group completely, so it’s up to you to plan for every eventuality and hope that you never have to implement those plans.
A good event crisis management plan is one that:
- Is developed in advance of an event, with input from key members of your team or key departments within your organization;
- Outlines action steps that must be taken during a crisis;
- Is reviewed and updated regularly;
- And is practiced in advance.
The first step to creating an effective plan is developing a crisis management or emergency response team, clearly outlining each member’s role and including all methods for contacting them. Keep in mind that you will need to have back-ups for every role in case the primary team member is not available. Having a team that has been identified in advance and has clearly defined roles significantly lessens the stress and confusion that occurs immediately after the onset of a crisis. Remember, should a crisis occur, you will be calling upon staff members to play specific roles for which they may have little or no everyday experience. It’s essential that they are very comfortable with these roles. Conducting drills or role-playing exercises are key to increasing their effectiveness.
Secondly, it is essential to define how you will manage the communication that takes place to all members of your public, including attendees, employees, media, members of the general public, relatives, etc., should a crisis arise. For example, whose responsibility will it be to craft press releases or internal messages, and what channels will they use to disperse these communiqués, or reach attendees and vendors? You might want to research the possibility of a mass notification system that includes the use of cell phones, texting, e-mails and so on.
Now that you know who and what will be involved in responding, it’s time to sit down and think through all the potential crisis situations that could occur so you can create a crisis response flow chart for each scenario, outlining specific action items for each one. Thinking through these situation-specific flow charts should point out areas of weakness and redundancy in processes that could seriously hamper your emergency response.
For each meeting or event you hold, customize your plan to include your current vendor list with emergency contact numbers, the facility’s emergency plan and chain of command, and contact information for the local area’s emergency response authorities. Share the plan with your key vendors and the facility. Also give the plan to the facility’s risk management or security director, and ask them to review it and provide you feedback on how it needs to be adapted. Don’t forget to ask them for a copy of their emergency response policies and procedures. Remember, once a situation occurs, it is frequently the facility’s responsibility to manage it, so you need to know who the key players on their staff are and how their roles mesh with your staff’s. Once you are on-site, ask for a back of the house tour to review where specific facilities that might serve as an emergency command center are located.
Once you return to the office, upon completion of your event, you will want to include a review of your crisis management plan in the overall event debriefing. Even if you didn’t have to implement it, things may have occurred on-site that caused you to reconsider your plans or tweak them. For instance, many buildings, such as stadiums and convention centers, have notoriously poor cell phone reception. If your action plan assumed you could communicate with staff via cell phone and you couldn’t, you will need to adapt your plan to include two-way radios the next time you are in such a facility.
Taking the time to develop an emergency response plan that defines key roles, includes specific action items for a variety of potential crisis situations and is clearly communicated to all key players is the first step to effectively managing an unexpected crisis. Remember, it’s only a matter of time before you may have to face an emergency situation at one of your meetings. Whether you succeed or fail in your response is all part of the plan!