Stories and Strategies Podcast
Guest, Ben Morgan, Center for Crisis Communication
Published May 18, 2020
Listen to this episode
Doug Downs (00:00):
In February, 2020, I had the opportunity to sit with Ben Morgan from the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications. Now, it may seem unfathomable just a few months later to be able to have a conversation about crisis communications and not mention Coronavirus or Covid 19, but that’s exactly what we did. There were no decrees for social distancing at the time we recorded. The virus was in the news, but it wasn’t yet the pandemic that it would become. Ben is one of the most respected crisis communications professionals in Canada, and he was long before 2020. The observations he makes in this episode and the advice he gives just as relevant and timely and important as ever.
Air Traffic Control (Movie Sully) (00:46):
Tom Hanks (Movie Sully) (00:47):
I don’t think we can make any runway. What about over to our right? Anything in New Jersey may be Teterboro.
Doug Downs (00:52):
It was a day like 10,000 other days. That’s how Chesley Sully Sullenberger. Captain Sully describes January 15th, 2009 when he boarded Airbus A320 in New York to captain the flight to North Carolina. On today’s podcast, crisis Communications,
Tom Hanks (Movie Sully) (01:15):
This is the Captain – brace for Impact.
In Flight Control voice (Movie Sully) (01:22):
Air Traffic Control (Movie Sully) (01:30):
Cactus 1549, turn right, 2 80 0. You can land runway one. Teterboro.
Tom Hanks (Movie Sully) (01:34):
We can’t make it.
Air Traffic Control (Movie Sully) (01:35):
Okay. Which runway would you like Teterboro?
Tom Hanks (Movie Sully) (01:37):
We’re going to end up in the Hudson.
In Flight Control voice (Movie Sully) (01:39):
Air Traffic Control (Movie Sully) (01:39):
I’m sorry. Say again. Cactus
Speaker 6 (01:39):
Doug Downs (02:18):
The movie Sully Miracle on the Hudson with Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckert put out by Warner Brothers. My name’s Doug Downs. My guest today is Ben Morgan from the Center for Crisis Communications. Hi Ben.
Ben Morgan (02:31):
Hi Doug. What a treat to be on your show.
Doug Downs (02:33):
Excellent. Good to have you. Ben is the Principal of the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications. He has a master’s in professional communications from Royal Rhoads and is a sessional instructor at both Royal Rhoads University and Mount Royal University. In fact, you’re heading out to Victoria soon to begin some sessions, as I understand.
Ben Morgan (02:51):
Well, I’m actually going to Victoria to Royal Rhoads Campus. If you haven’t seen it, Google it. It’s worth it. In fact, Deadpool and X-Men were often filmed really across the Royal Rhoads castle as a backdrop for the School of the Gifted from the X-Men. But I’m actually heading there because Dr. Timothy Coombs from Texas is a guest lecturer at Royal Rhoads next week, and I just have to go meet the guy. I use his books in my classes. I use his situational theories in our coursework, and so it’s kind of enough momentum or motivation to get me back out to the island. So I’m so looking forward to that
Doug Downs (03:37):
And that that’s timely cuz we’re going to talk about situational crisis theory a bit later in this podcast, which is one of the leading theories. Ben my guest led the crisis communications for the City of Calgary during the floods in 2013 province-wide. In those floods, five people were killed. There was about 6 billion in financial losses and property damage as well as the local communications during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. Fair to say, Ben, you’ve been in the hot seat, so to speak,
Ben Morgan (04:09):
The hot seat and the cold seat. Yeah, and that’s a great opener. I will just preface that though. So the City of Calgary the communications response was done by an amazing group of professional communications staff. That’s a good point. And I held a leadership role, but it really was a collective effort of an amazing group of people that were dedicated to helping Calgarians see the way through at the time, Canada’s costly as natural disaster and largest peacetime evacuation.
Doug Downs (04:46):
Great point. Cuz any communications effort were worth it sold is the result of a team and a lot of leaders. So we opened with that scene from the movie Sully, and I meant for it to be a metaphor. So if you liken communications planning to being a pilot, imagine as a communications professional, we’re all pilots. So in that vein, we’ve all flown planes, we’ve all flown them through turbulent weather and rough landings, risk management, that’s issues management. And we’ve trained for crises in simulations. But as Captain Sullenberger would say there, there’s no simulation that will really prepare you for the real life thing. You’ve been through two huge crises playing a significant role in the communications. Is that fair to say that once you’re in it, you’ve gotta prepare, but living it is something else?
Ben Morgan (05:38):
Living it is absolutely something else. We adopted a phrase that is, your crisis communication plan is as good as it is until the day you need it. If you look at the Calgary floods as an example for several years, the city of Calgary had done flood modeling to better understand the implications of the floodplain and the one in 10 year, the one in 50 year, the one in 100 year flood they worked through that modeling and there was opportunity to run some flooding simulations. In the city of Calgary, we have flooding almost every year. A lot of that flooding is planned and expected and very well managed. And so we’ve exercised on that. There was no exercise for the one in 100 year flood with a complete loss of our downtown core with a massive evacuation of 26 different communities. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 people power grid failure evacuation of the zoo and let’s throw in a fully loaded diesel train overhanging on a bridge over the river. That’s about to fail. Not even the nastiest scenario. Designer is going to come up with a scenario like that to test an emergency management or a crisis communication team. As much as you want to design a really good scenario, you can’t make up or create something as dynamic and challenging as life can deliver
Doug Downs (07:16):
Your company, the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications. This is following the work of Dr. Vincent Covello.
Ben Morgan (07:25):
Yeah. So the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications is actually a growth point from the Center for Risk Management, which was in existence for about 25 years run by man, by the name of David DeGagne. Mr. DeGagne retired, and it was at that point that Dr. Covello asked if I wanted to carry on kind of David’s legacy, if you will which of course I did. It was a huge honor to have Dr. Covello say, would you like to do this? Dr. Covello, to me when I was doing my master’s degree, I researched and studied Dr. Covello. Of course, my area of interest was crisis. I was a paramedic for 16 years before I did a shift into communications. So I naturally was drawn to crisis events. And so I studied him in my research for my master’s degree, and it was after the flood that, what the hell?
And I reached out to the man and I ended up hiring him and brought him to the city of Calgary on and he ran through his crisis and risk communications workshop with us. He is fascinating in that his master’s degree is in neuroscience. And so when it comes to philosophy and academia, rather than saying, Hey, I got this idea, or here’s a new way to look at things, or maybe we should consider this, he takes it to another step and he puts brain probes on people’s heads and tests, messages and sequences and wording, and he puts people into MRI machines and watches. What parts of their brains are activated when they’re in high stress, high concern situations, and based on that research. So it’s science based. And so based on that research, he’s able to develop tools that communications and emergency management people can utilize. Simple tools, 27 9 3 CCO that just help shape and guide how we not ought to be, but how we could be communicating with our stakeholders.
Doug Downs (09:48):
So the mix there between theory and practice is that you need to plan, you need to prepare, you need to deeply understand the theory so that when this once in a century event happens and it feels like you’re flying from the seat of your pants, you’re actually not, you’re still working from a framework or a textbook of some kind and acting in a cogent way.
Ben Morgan (10:14):
If you go to my LinkedIn page I just did an article this week title practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it sure helps. And the analogy that I just found myself organically using this analogy when I’m working with clients and you’re talking about crisis planning or crisis communication planning, I relate back to my days of as a paramedic. And when we were in paramedic school, we learned, one of the things we learned is how to properly remove a patient from a car, as an example using spinal mobilization procedures. We did that in the classroom, use classroom chairs and imagined we were in a car. If we were feeling really adventurous, we would go out to the parking lot and get in one of our cars and try to take our patient, one of our students out of that car. The principles of spinal mobilization remain the same across the board.
Whether you’re pretending to sit in a classroom chair or doing it in a real car whether you’re pretending it’s a vehicle accident or sporting incident or whatever, the principles of spinal mobilization stay the same. And that is somebody always holds the head, hold the neck in line. That person doesn’t let go of the head. If they need to let go of the head, they have to have somebody else take over. Any moves of the body is done in one move, the spinal column remains in line. There’s just the principles of it. And so we practice, practice, practice, practice that, and we get it. But on the first day on the job, and you’re called to a car accident where the car is flipped upside down in a ditch on fire with the patient hanging upside down, we didn’t practice for this, it doesn’t matter. All you do is fall back to the principles. And the principles don’t change. Hold the head. Nobody leaves the head as little movement as possible. One line, line, keep the spinal cord in line and you adapt and overcome. And the same is true for crisis management. Crisis communications, doesn’t matter what you’re thrown at. And it’s like, oh my gosh, we didn’t practice that scenario. Doesn’t matter. If you’ve got a solid foundation to build from, then you’re just setting yourself up for success.
Doug Downs (12:31):
And sometimes crisis is just like that. It’s a fire, it’s a flood, it’s an explosion. It’s a car with a passenger flipped upside down. It happens obvious just like that. You know, have a crisis. Sometimes crisis kind of sneaks up from on you and healthcare is a perfect example of sometimes crisis creeping up on you. I wanna play you a scene from the 2011 Warner Brothers movie Contagion. This is from the beginning of the movie when the character played by Lawrence Fishburne from the Center for Disease Controller, C D C. He’s the lead physician in the movie. He’s talking with the communications person, the character played by Kate Winslet, who is planning early communications
Lawrence Fishburne (Movie Contagion) (13:12):
Camp near a Lake.
Kate Winslet (Movie Contagion) (13:14):
I was reading that last summer. They had an outbreak of antivirus, encephalitis, 103 cases, mainly children.
Lawrence Fishburne (Movie Contagion) (13:20):
No, it’s probably too cold up there for that right now. As of last night, there are five deaths and 32 cases,
Kate Winslet (Movie Contagion) (13:26):
There’s a cluster in an elementary school.
Lawrence Fishburne (Movie Contagion) (13:28):
Okay. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to have to be prepared for. It’s going to be all over the news big time. What’s your single overriding communications objective?
Kate Winslet (Movie Contagion) (13:35):
We’re isolating the sick and quarantining those who we believe were exposed.
Lawrence Fishburne (Movie Contagion) (13:40):
Okay good. As of this moment, you and I are attached at the cell phone. If you need resources, call me. If you get into a political dog fight, call me if you find yourself wide awake, staring at the walls at 3:00 AM wondering why you took the job. Call me.
Doug Downs (13:53):
So there you go, Ben. This scene really addresses the importance of early communication. When the media and social media is pushing for information and saying, we need info, we need info, what? What’s going on? What’s going on? And you may not have that. You may not have it confirmed to the very least, and if you don’t speak to it, if you leave silence, you enable those communication bodies, media, social media, influencers to start generating myth and rumor, my goodness, social media can just take off from there.
Ben Morgan (14:22):
That we’re certainly living in a different environment today where people and people organizing, however you wanna define that. Audiences expect to be kept updated and informed about what’s happening, especially if it’s impacting them. Five years ago, maybe, well more than that now, 10. Let’s say 10 years ago, classic crisis communication practice was let’s get all the information we have, let’s make sure it’s verified. We’ll craft a media release, we’ll double check it, we’ll put it, we’ll get a holding statement out. And by the time that happens, three, you’re three hours into an event three hours into an event from a corporate or an organizational perspective is too long. The conversation around the Boston bomb Marathon started about 42 seconds after the first bomb exploded. Wow. The first post on Twitter was an image of the smoke rising from the backpack that had exploded. That’s when the conversation started.
Boston authorities took, and I forget the numbers three or four hours before the Boston authorities became a part of that conversation, they were stuck in, we need to make sure we’re giving the right information. We need to make sure it’s all verified. That kind of spin in that three to four hour gap, there was a tremendous amount of citizen investigations, citizen journalism accusations that actually somebody took their own life because they were being accused of being the bomber when they weren’t right. And so there was a huge gap. People want and expect information, and it doesn’t mean you have to have all the information. And yes, absolutely. Before you are a part of that conversation, you need to have something to say. It’s easy to say, we are aware of an event, our priority now is, and here’s where you can go to get the latest information.
Doug Downs (16:27):
Let me ask you about messaging. What role does empathy play in messaging when it comes to a crisis in particular?
Ben Morgan (16:36):
So I struggle with this one a lot actually. I think empathy plays a very significant role, so long as it’s genuine and authentic goes right back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt. People wanna know that you care before they care what you know, and so when crafting messages I use a tool called the Message Map by Dr. Covello three key messages, nine words each nine seconds. The first one of those messages when possible and when appropriate ought to be a message of compassion or empathy.
Doug Downs (17:20):
And when you have a crisis, things are happening really quickly. I know the ability to prioritize and focus on those priorities is absolutely paramount. I’ll play you a clip from an interview with the real Captain Sullenberger, in which he describes that moment when he knew his plane was going down and how he set his mind to focus on what he had to do.
Captain Sullenberger (17:46):
And so I chose to do only the highest priority items, and then I had the discipline to ignore everything I did not have time to do as being only distractions and potential detriments to our performance. You see, all I, I’m also well-read, and so I knew that the neurobiology, I knew that multitasking is a myth that when we think we’re multitasking, what we are in fact doing is switching rapidly between tasks, not doing either of ’em well. And so I chose not to try to do too much.
Doug Downs (18:20):
That’s a great example right there, because there’s chaos all around here. There’s a million different things happening not just with the crisis itself, but with the communications that needs to take place. It’s a matter of prioritizing and focusing. And you live that in those floods in Calgary and in those fires up in Fort McMurray.
Ben Morgan (18:38):
Well, it’s a great segue into emergency management and the ICS incident command structure. Many organizations will operate from an IC with an ICS model, and one of the keys of, for me anyway, is P post. So P POST stands for priorities, problems, objectives, strategies and tactics. And it really helps manage management and communications folks drill through all of the clutter and really identify what the real priority is right now. And you could argue that it’s life safety, incident stabilization, and then environmental implications. It might be different no matter what your organization is, but really identifying and clearly demonstrating what our current priority is in a communications role. I would then take that identified priority or objective out of the emergency operations center or incident command post and bring that back to the communications team and clearly say, here’s our priority and here’s our objective. You need to know what you’re working on and what the priority is and not get lost. Not get lost down in the weeds.
Doug Downs (19:57):
You mentioned Timothy Coombs at the beginning. I’ll circle back to Dr. Coombs. One of the more scholarly theories in crisis communications is situational Crisis Communications Theory or S C C T is an acronym for everything. It’s the theory that if people know about past crises involving your organization or your reputation, that will have impact on how the public will respond to this new crisis and communications planning has to adjust to that.
Ben Morgan (20:26):
Well, not only how you’ve handled a crisis in the past, but how organizations have handled a crisis in the past. So if you look at the airline industry as an example, if you can do a case study on United with, what was his name? Dr. Dow the physician that got dragged off the aircraft, that impacts how people view the airline industry as a whole. American Airlines, right? Or Yeah, sure. So yeah, Coombs’ situational crisis communication theory. He identifies response strategies, and again, they’re more guides. So overarching, how are we going to approach this thing? And it’s based on who is ultimately responsible for causing this crisis, as well as how significant the threat is to that organization’s reputation that isn’t always as clear. So if you look at the Fort McMurray fires as an example, who was responsible for that? Well, nobody knew for a long time.
You could argue that the municipality and the Fort McMurray fire department was responsible to mitigate or to bring that event to an end or a close. But who was ultimately responsible for that didn’t come out for years. So basically, Coombs has identified a few strategies, and one of them is rebuilding relationships by redeeming the organization’s reputation rebuild. Crisis strategies are most frequently used in response to accident crisis, especially when the organization has had a history. Boeing, as an example, might be looking at rebuilding strategy. He’s got the diminished strategy and diminished strategy works to minimize the amount of responsibility that’s placed on that organization. The reality is there’s the actual responsibility and the perceived responsibility. So who is the public or your audience? Who are they perceiving as responsible? And if they’re perceiving you or your organization and your responses, it wasn’t, wasn’t us, wasn’t us, then that audience isn’t necessarily going to believe it.
There’s opportunity. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity when in the Chinese language, when they spell crisis, they use two characters. One represents threat, the other represents opportunity. And a lot of organizations seem to be afraid to seize that opportunity. There’s opportunity to boost or bolster your organization’s reputation by just being real and genuine and not trying to deflect. And we’re not going to say anything if we just don’t say anything. This will go away. Let’s fly under the radar. And it, that’s especially true in today’s environment. We are so connected. Information moves so fast that if you’re not being real unauthentic today, you’re going to get called on it.
Doug Downs (23:43):
Ben, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today.
Ben Morgan (23:46):
Well, this was fun. Thanks. Let’s do it again.
Doug Downs (23:49):
If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Ben Morgan, you can at b morgan m o r g a n, at crisis coms.ca. The company’s website is all one word, lowercase center for crisis communications.com. If you liked what you heard today, would you do us a favor? Recommend this podcast to one friend, and if you have an idea for an episode or just wanna tell us something, send us a note at email@example.com Thanks for listening.