Thank goodness you didn’t hear about it.

March 20, 2007

At least if you were not in the Seattle metro market. The breaking news story I referred to late yesterday involved the discovery of a white powdery substance coming from an envelope opened by an administrative worker of a large industrial facility. Everyone did everything right. The employee dropped the envelope and left it on the desk, security was alerted, the building evacuated, 911 called, local police and emergency response teams responded, they called in the haz mat team from the state to enter the building, evaluate the substance and determine if it was a threat. The haz mat team comes with five big trucks, lights flashing. The media is alerted via radio scanners and the phone begins to ring, they send the news helicopters, the satellite trucks are close behind and “Breaking News” breaks out on the website with live video of the helicopter over the building, then live interview to lead the 5 p.m. news. The 6:30 news leads with the mystery substance.

At about 7 p.m. the substance was identified. Packing material. Such is the world we live in today. A post 9/11 world and an instant news world and a blogging/social media world. The 11 p.m. news carried the denouement deep in the newscast. Story over.

Having been actively involved in this response, a few early de-brief notes:

– we attempted to coordinate with the FBI, Washington State Patrol, local Sheriff’s department to provide a lead media contact since we did not really want to speak for the investigation, what the authorities were doing, etc. We wanted to focus any information we provided on the facility, its operation and the people involved. But we were not successful in getting any of the agencies to take the lead or effectively get involved in the media response. As much as we tried, we were forced to be the source of information.

– we provided a short informational statement on our website about the event within the first couple of hours and well before the first media call came in. This helps the process considerably as they simply want the bare facts immediately so they can get their machines working–in this case, their news websites. Shortly after, the requests for live radio and television interviews come. But keeping the latest information available on the website makes the whole process go much smoother, and helps insure consistency and accuracy of information.

– we emailed our statement with updates out to the media who inquired as well as to the Public Information Officers of several state, local and federal agencies involved in the response. Keeping everyone involved in the loop helps insure information consistency and builds confidence in the response.

– we coordinated the communications with people in the Emergency Operation Center as well as those on the other side of the country. Company headquarters communication management was involved throughout the process. The integrated communication management technology used by the facility worked very well in allowing collaborative development of public statements, logging and tracking media inquiries, providing information and directions through a secure chat room, and giving the communication team (without IT involvement) full control over the website.

In retrospect, it is easy to say I wish all the activity could have been avoided. But, it probably couldn’t. Safety is a huge issue at major industrial facilities and everyone is taught to identify risks very early and take no chances. If this person had not reacted as they did, they would have violated that safety culture. And once the machine is turned on, the process must be followed through to the end. With all the busyness that goes with it.

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