Crisis communications – the importance of inbound messaging

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Never has the need for a crisis communications strategy been as crucial as it is today. The catastrophic events of the past couple of years have shown us that relying solely on traditional communications tools for contacting employees, customers and other constituents in a time of need is not enough for relaying vital information.

As the heightened awareness of our vulnerability triggered an increase in business continuity management among government agencies and businesses, our understanding of what makes a truly effective communications tool is quickly evolving.

Until recently, emergency communications focused exclusively on outbound communication—reaching out to constituents—but did not provide a method for receiving vital information from the people being contacted.

A quick analysis of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina alone underscored the limitations of the outbound-only communications approach:

* People are widely dispersed and unreachable due to lack of access to email or phones.

* Physical meeting points may be inaccessible or destroyed.

* Facilities from which outbound communications are to originate may be damaged, destroyed, or inaccessible.

* Outbound notifications have a limited period of usefulness.

The old adage goes: Necessity is the mother of invention. The past five years has moved crisis management from a state of infancy to a highly organized discipline. Events have demanded more from our communications tools, and as a result, the development and administration of a more robust solution became mandatory.

Analyzing past events and strategizing to prevent future ones has revealed a key communications issue –communications cannot be a one-way street. Broadcast emergency notifications to large groups is vital for disseminating life-saving messages; however, when used in conjunction with inbound messaging, you move to a new level of effectiveness.

Outbound and inbound communications must work together during an emergency
Hurricanes are amongst the largest natural disasters that can occur – they can affect huge regions of populated territory and devastate entire cities, as we learned last year from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In its April, 2006 study of the Federal disaster response to Hurricane Katrina (http://www.gao.gov/new.items /d06622t.pdf ), the Government Accounting Office (GAO) very clearly cited inadequate planning, poor communications and inadequate personnel deployment as major contributory factors in what they deemed major insufficiencies. These are all key elements in developing a proper business continuity plan, as well.

The poor communications issue noted by the GAO underscores the need for organizations to rapidly and effectively reach out to their constituents with vital information and provide a secure, easy-to-access method for their constituents to receive and provide critical status information. As an example, an employee may need to call in with a simple “I’m OK” message, or they may need to contact the organization’s emergency management group to receive critical incident specific status details.

Inbound information, relaying critical status of employees, for example, that is properly managed and integrated in real time, can serve to more effectively leverage and direct the organization’s outbound communications, informing them with greater relevance, immediacy and impact based on the information received from individuals ‘on the ground’. Even though an effective outbound communications solution can reach out to literally tens of thousands of individuals in a few minutes, by itself, this is not a complete solution. As an example, you may have a distributed team of first responders who have been notified of a situation by your outbound messaging facility. However, unless they know who actually needs help, based on inbound messages from other employees and staff, their efforts will be diluted and far less effective.

As mentioned, individuals may be widely dispersed and unreachable due to lack of access to email or phones in a time of crisis. These individuals need to be able to reach a center that is available, easy to connect to by e-mail, phone or via the web and that is integrated with the organization’s outbound communications solution. They will be calling in with status information, requests for aid and other information that can be used to help direct and focus an organization’s outbound communications.

Messages in a bottleneck
With outbound notifications the administrator controls the delivery timeframe and volume, but inbound call volume cannot be predicted or controlled. You could get a few or thousands of calls within a compressed time frame, usually right after an event happens, overwhelming an organization’s phone system, if the phone system is working.

A hosted solution offers a tremendous increase in inbound call capacity and ensures that employees have the information they need, while leaving the organization’s phone system available for outbound emergency calls.

This not only ensures that employees can access the information they need; it also leaves the organization’s phone system available for emergency outgoing calls. A hosted solution with shared lines would also still function even if a company’s corporate headquarters is damaged or phone service in the area in unavailable.

How inbound communication works
Inbound messaging enables people to dial a number that routes to an automated service or log on to a website to receive and communicate vital information.

In many cases, inbound messaging is not only used to provide information to employees, but also to collect information from them — primarily, to account for their well-being or to provide assistance if needed. This can be achieved by requiring those who contact the identified message center to enter a personal ID number and to add answer interactive questions, such as: “Are you Okay?”, “Have you evacuated the building?”, “Do you need medical assistance?”, and “At what number can you be reached?”

From there, an organization can run real-time reports, stay up-to-date on the whereabouts of its staff, and focus its resources and energy on the people who need to be located or are in need of help. This vital piece of information curbs any fruitless efforts of trying to locate an entire work force when only a small minority needs help or is in any real danger.

A ‘virtual rally point’
As evidenced in recent events, physical meeting points may be inaccessible or even decimated during a crisis. Inbound communications fills the void by providing a virtual rally point. Case in point: A large US-based financial services firm with offices in London implemented an automated communications system as part of its business continuity strategy. Their approach was three pronged: an outbound messaging service, and outbound contingency information line and an inbound service that it calls the “I’m OK line.”

The firm’s Business Continuity Manager, states: “During 9/11, the physical rally points that companies used for evacuations were being showered with falling steel and debris. Employees simply had to run away as fast as they could. In the event something like that happens here, we want to be able to locate our dispersed staff.”

Consequently, this inbound line proved its value during the underground bombing in July 2005. As events unfolded the firm knew the whereabouts of every employee.

Dynamic response
As organizations evolve and establish mature business continuity plans that are better able to communicate with their staff and retrieve information, recovery plans can respond to known, rather than perceived, problems. And therein lays the real value of dynamic communication: responding in real-time to evolving situations. As situations move towards stabilization or greater destabilization, so, too, can the recovery strategies and the messaging content and tactics.

The benefits of adapting a recovery plan can not be understated:

* Employees who have identified themselves by accessing the Message Center can later be contacted and asked to help employees from their departments, or staff who live close to them.

* Members of response teams can be directed to begin, refocus or suspend their efforts based on the data received from the field.

* Organizations can upload maps to a Web-based inbound service to provide evacuation plans or directions to new employee work sites.

* Employees can call in to update their contact information with their temporary or new phone number for more accurate outbound messaging.

* Organizations can contact authorities and mobilize appropriate resources for employees who have called the system and reported that they need help.

* Employees can call in to hear that the corporate network is offline. When it’s back up, the company can push this news out to employees so that they can begin to recover their work and resume their responsibilities.

Business continuity planning is a rapidly evolving, critical strategic initiative for a growing number of organizations, both large and small. An effective communications solution is the glue that binds together the elements of a business continuity plan. An effective solution delivers rapid, effective, two-way communications that enable organizations to adaptively and efficiently respond to changing situations. These communications help organizations to minimize the potential loss of assets or data, protect people more effectively, and more reliably preserve supply chain relationships with customers and vendors.

Author: David Page, PAR3 Communications senior vice president and general manager, business continuity. http://www.par3.com

Date: 11th August 2006 • Region: US/World Type: Article •Topic: Crisis comms
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