Tell Them What Not to Do

Campus emergency preparedness plans should provide specific and practical action steps for employees to perform in the event of a crisis. However, personnel must be provided with specific information on actions they should avoid during crisis situations. For example, it is relatively common to see unauthorized media interviews following a major campus crisis event. The individuals who are authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the organization usually do a great job with the media, but the interviews that get the most press attention are those featuring a faculty member or support employee who is not only not authorized to release information, but also provides statements detrimental to the organization. Under certain circumstances this can also be emotionally harmful to victims and their families. In some instances, multiple unauthorized interviews occur and the carefully crafted official message gets lost in the media coverage. Fortunately, it is possible to address this problem with simple and fairly reliable techniques.

While there are other aspects of emergency preparedness where it is important for employees to avoid certain actions, we shall use contacts by the media as an example of how to reduce the chances that personnel will act inappropriately during a crisis.
Address media interviews by employees in policy. Most institutions of higher learning address media interviews by employees in policy. The policy should clearly articulate when employees can speak as representatives of the institution. Some employees may feel it is their right to speak to the media regarding crisis situations. Trying to address freedom of speech issues in these situations on the fly in the middle of a major crisis is generally going to be a very difficult task.

Provide directions for all employees in written plan components. Most campus preparedness plans have written guidelines to guide staff members who are authorized to speak to the media. While this is extremely important, it is just as important that all other employees be told in writing in their emergency plan component what they should and should not do if approached by the press.

Train employees on how they should handle inquiries from the press. While written plan components are critical, employees should be provided some form of training, instruction, or guidance on how to apply these plans. Whether you utilize classroom instruction, custom safety training videos, or Web-based training, it is important to instruct all employees how to proceed if the press contacts them. Employees should be specifically cautioned that media representatives have even contacted employees at home after a crisis. Employees who have not been properly prepared for such contacts are more likely to make a statement that can be used by the media because they are caught off guard.

Condition employees to apply what they have been told to do under stress through the drill and exercise program. Written preparedness plans and training become more reliable when employees have an opportunity to practice applying what they have learned. One of the most effective means to accomplish this is through a carefully thought out progressive exercise program. A simple way to help condition employees to remember how to handle media inquiries during actual crisis events is to continually remind them of the proper responses during drills, tabletop exercises, functional exercises and full-scale exercises, and the hot wash following each exercise.

For example, when exercises such as tabletop exercises are conducted, it is easy to include attempts by the media to interview employees in the scenario. This forces participants to respond to media contacts and helps further reinforce the proper response. Of course, this point should be covered during the hot wash following the exercise. The repetition of this approach can make it second nature for employees to remember not to respond inappropriately to media inquiries, even when they are operating under heavy stress. For this approach to work, all employees must participate in drills and exercises to some extent. Of course, they need to participate in these types of activities for the organization to be properly prepared for crisis situations in the first place.

These types of measures should also be considered for other key concepts such as serious injury and death notification. By taking the time to address critical action steps that should not be taken by staff in the written plan components, training staff on how to respond, and affording them opportunities to practice what they have learned through a progressive exercise program, employees can be set up to succeed when a crisis occurs.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at