Have a plan, but be ready to evolve with a crisis

crisis panel

Whether the disaster is natural or man-made, and whether you're in journalism or public relations, preparedness will help see you through. But no amount of advance planning will shield you from the devastating emotional toll of a crisis.

At the workshop, "Three Dimensions of Crisis: Reporting, Responding, Recovering," presenter Marilyn Saltzman described her job after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Saltzman worked in the Jefferson County School Communications Office at the time.

Another presenter, Marsha Shuler, talked about surviving and reporting on hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 from her newspaper's base in Baton Rouge, La.

"Crises evolve, but they never go away," Saltzman said. In the first 12 hours, be able to tell people what happened, even if that includes "we don't know." In the second 12 hours, the media will want to know who were the victims and perpetrators. Later, the questions will be about why, she said.

Saltzman offered some ideas that helped her: have a crisis plan, ask for help and speak with one clear voice. Also, she suggested, remember these ABC's: anticipate, be brief and be consistent.

"Even after a year, some neighborhoods in New Orleans look like war zones," Shuler said. The first rounds of stories will tell people what happened, but should also provide readers with any information that would make life even a little easier.

Try to keep track of people you interviewed in the early days, so that you can follow up with them at intervals later on, she said. There are many layers of stories to tell in your continuing coverage. For example, so many evacuees left Louisiana that the state has also lost a congressional seat.

On a more practical note, after the hurricanes, field reporters in Louisiana realized how critical survival kits are, said Shuler. Now, they keep food, batteries, cell phones and all kinds of gear ready to go in their cars.

Marilyn SaltzmanMarsha Shuler

When it came to the question of recovery, Saltzman said her school district had required counseling for involved employees. Shuler said reporters were affected for life and should have received counseling, though none was offered.

— Erin Hottenstein, Colorado Press Women