How well was the City of Calgary prepared in regard to crisis communication when the devastating flood happened in June of 2013?
The City of Calgary communications team had previously responded to several crisis events. These events were managed well and those who performed communication tasks had primarily utilized traditional communication channels. However, over the last couple of years there had been an increase in regard to social media utilization by the City of Calgary that has resulted in a large and growing number of Twitter followers and Facebook fans.
Recognizing evolving technologies, infrastructure, and citizen expectations, in late 2012, the City of Calgary approved funding for a dedicated crisis communication staff resource. This role was tasked with updating the municipal crisis communication plan and restructuring the crisis communication response team. These initiatives were under way when Calgary experienced the 2013 flood.
Fortunately, the City of Calgary Customer Service and Communications Team is comprised of professionals who are experienced in various communication disciplines including crisis communication. As the flood waters rose in Calgary, this group of professionals was called into action to support a multitude of communication tasks. Relying on past experience, instinct, and professionalism, Calgary's team of communicators exceeded the expectations of both internal and external stakeholders.
How did you and your colleagues handle communication during the emergency?
The first City of Calgary news release about the approaching flood waters was sent out at 8:02 a.m. on Thursday, June 20, 2013, announcing that the Municipal Emergency Plan had been activated and that the Emergency Operations Centre was open. The best way to understand what subsequently happened is to go online and look at a timeline page we created in order to illustrate our response. (Please click here to view the timeline page.)
In general, as the severity of the flood increased, the number of communication channels utilized and messages conveyed increased. To ensure that as many Calgarians as possible received critical messages, The City of Calgary deployed a multitude of communication tools and vehicles that included the following:
· Traditional media via news releases
· Mobile applications (internal and external facing): push notifications
· Social media channels: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blog
· Banner alerts on Calgary websites
· Digital Display Unit alert banners
· Scrolling route signs on transit buses
· Door to door knocking by police and other responders
· Public announcements (police cars, helicopter)
· Door hangers
· Information brochures, leaflets, etc.
· 311 City Call Centre
While disseminating information, the critical challenge was to ensure that our messaging across all channels was accurate, consistent, and interlinked.
Our mayor Naheed Nenshi had a simple philosophy that guided our messaging: “If we know about it, then Calgary should know about it.” This phrase reflects the City of Calgary’s commitment to open, honest, and transparent government.
Information was gathered from appropriate sources and because the City of Calgary's blog became the primary communication channel, new information was typically provided in the form of a blog post. That same blog post was later referenced and used to create tweets, Facebook posts, media briefings notes, and press releases. To ensure the accuracy of any published information, there was one point of contact within the City’s communication group who liaised with the Director of the Emergency Management Agency (EMA). The EMA Director was the ultimate message approving authority. This approval process ensured that all published messages were accurate and consistent.
Working with partner agencies was another important success factor concerning Calgary’s communication response. The Calgary Police Service has a strong Twitter presence within the Calgary community. Consistent messaging between the Police Service and the City hence increased the overall social media reach immensely.
Given the level of crisis communication preparedness you described, are you satisfied with how the communications team performed during the crisis?
I believe that the City of Calgary communications team far exceeded the expectations of the Calgary community, crisis responders, the mayor, and city council. The exceptional performance was nurtured by senior leaders who empowered and encouraged the creativity and expertise of individual communicators. The communications team's performance was underpinned by an inherent spirit and pride of being a Calgarian.
Several of Calgary’s communications team members who did not play a key role in the communication response found other ways to contribute by volunteering for city-wide clean-up efforts, providing temporary residence to those displaced from their homes, etc. It is therefore fair to say that the entire communications team was affected and responded above and beyond the call of duty.
How did you evaluate the crisis communication performance?
Metrics played a significant role in our communication evaluation process. Between June 20, 2013 and July 4, 2013, the City of Calgary accomplished the following:
· Published more than 140 news media releases
· Supported daily update press conferences
· Supported daily mayor update press conferences
· Provided media representatives with tours of affected areas
· Created a pool of video and still images for media outlets
· Registered nearly three million visits to Calgary’s websites
· Saw a 6.2% increase in Facebook likes with a 57.85% increase in the number of Facebook friends
· Registered an increase of 26,000 Twitter followers
· Tweeted over 1500 tweets with 12,000 re-tweets
· Posted over 270 YouTube videos which generated more than 460,000 views
· Posted over 280 images on Flickr which generated more than 1000 additional community posts
· Pushed a large number of information notifications through mobile apps
· Created information notices, bulletins, signage, and brochures
· Authored and shared “good news stories”
· Produced various informational videos
· Carried out two significant marketing campaigns: “We’re Back” and “Runs Deep”
· Processed over 100,000 phone inquires (311 City Call Centre)
· Created over 3000 hot topic service requests
· Enhanced 311 City Call Centre mobile app to allow for more service requests
At the time of this interview, the debrief process from the communication response to the flood has not been completed. Due to the magnitude and complexity of Calgary’s communication response to the 2013 floods, an external business process consultant was hired to assist with the internal debrief process.
With this in mind, a significant indication of Calgary’s communication performance is the feedback and recognition from our local, and in fact the global, community. The feedback our team of communicators received has been extremely positive and the opportunity to contribute this interview to C4CS' Communication Command e-Newsletter is another achievement we value highly. It is further testament to the successful work done by our team.
What are your key takeaways and what will change in terms of crisis communication preparedness on the heels of the devastating flood?
The City of Calgary was very fortunate that the construction and staffing of a new state of the art Emergency Operations Centre was completed in 2012. The Emergency Operations Centre housed representatives from all responding entities in one location, and the close proximity critically enhanced the information gathering and verification process.
As previously mentioned, a new crisis communication plan and crisis communication response team structure was under development at the time of the 2013 Calgary flood. As such, the City of Calgary is now looking at a valuable opportunity to incorporate identified successes and learning opportunities into the yet to be completed crisis communication plan.
That said, one significant takeaway is that a crisis communication plan should provide a framework, guidance, and direction. However, the plan should be simple and allow room for professionals to utilize their expertise and creativity. A crisis communication plan cannot effectively address every possible scenario and therefore must be easily adaptable. As one of our leaders reflected, “It does not matter what tune you have practiced, a crisis will always make you sing a different song.”
Another important takeaway for the City of Calgary is the need for communication capacity. In addition to all of the front line communication needs, we were required to provide 24/7 communication support at nine reception centers (evacuation centers) throughout the city, which greatly impacted our staffing resources and capabilities. To achieve all of our objectives during the 2013 Calgary flood, we required the ongoing expertise of more than 90 communication professionals. Looking forward, we will find unique ways to build in significant communication capacities so we will be prepared should an event of this magnitude occur again.