Crisis Management for Events

I’ve had the title for this post sitting in my “Drafts” for some time now, waiting for the right time to post it. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I feel like this is a good time to remind organizations that having a Crisis Management Plan for your events is a definite must. “Crisis” does make this sound like it’s only in place for major issues, like hurricanes or massive fires. But for events, or at least for the purpose of this article, crisis refers to any major change that could adversely affect your event and your participants’ enjoyment at it.

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan /

In the past, I’ve attended two major Kansas City events in the pouring rain – one was in tornadic conditions! I’ve attended the same run multiple years and experienced weather from crazy warm and beautiful to crazy rainy to very freezing. These events cater to about 3,500 people and attendees are fairly local. Although they always say they’re “rain or shine” it’s not too bad if they have to cancel at the last-minute – most people will just stay home or change their plans for the evening. The New York Marathon was a whole different situation. Major damage, power outages, unhappy locals – all of it was going to add up to a negative environment for everyone – the runners, the race planners and the residents. I believe cancelling the race was a good decision, just the timing and communication was a little suspect.

Good plans need to already be in place for adjustments and crisis management for the largest to the smallest event before they are needed. You need to know how situations will be handled, how you’ll get the message out to the masses and what you should and shouldn’t say.

Situations To Plan For:

Maybe I’m just a worrywart or a crazy Type-A personality or maybe my military family made me a bit of readiness nut, but I believe in planning to the fullest and being prepared for any situation. Especially in times when others are depending on me. So, here’s a few (sometimes over-the-top) things I think events need to take into account:

  • Weather. Yes, Mother Nature can be a serious b*tch. Especially if you live in Kansas. Or Missouri. Or in Tornado Alley at all. Or the coastal states. Or the northern states. Or…well, pretty much anywhere in the US. And outside the US as well. Just watch out for her. A friend of mine ended up having her beautiful destination beach wedding in a parking garage…yes parking garage…because her planner wasn’t prepared for the tropical storm that came through. And the weather may not be a factor for the actual event if it’s held indoors – but what about it effecting how people get to your event? A snowstorm might make that ugly sweater party seem a lot more cozy once people are there, but who’s going to make the dangerous drive to attend? Don’t forget to be prepared for a lot fewer people if the weather turns adverse.
  • Location. Oh, the venue caught fire last week?  Didn’t anticipate that, did you? Or it flooded when a water pipe exploded in the street? Maybe strong winds busted out all the windows. Or ants invaded. Or the President is coming to town and your location will be in accessible due to his motorcade and hotel location. I’m not saying you must have three locations lined up to use, but know what you would do if something happens to your place.
  • Vendors. What will you do if your caterer doesn’t show up? Or decides on a beef main dish…on Good Friday? What if the entertainment is struck with laryngitis or maybe your auctioneer? Maybe you have a florist, photographer or photo booth showing up…and they don’t. Are you dealing with Unions for any sort of set up and tear down…and did they go on strike? Maybe most of these aren’t major issues for most events but you might want to have plans in place in case the negative comments come after the fact.
  • Parking and Transportation. New construction happening in your parking area? Maybe you’ll have fewer shuttles to get them from Point A to Point B? Make sure people are aware beforehand if at all possible! Walking any distance without warning while wearing a formal gown and 4″ heels will take the fun out of the night pretty quickly for any woman.
  • People. Ah, the people factor. They are what truly makes our events special, aren’t they? They can also make it very unfun. Be aware of what an open bar can do to an event, particularly a younger crowd (I’m remembering a certain event that served up copious amounts of donated vodka a few years ago…). Party crashers, hot heads and drama queens could quickly escalate into very negative situations. And then could be the only things people remember in the future. These aren’t situations you can address early but you might have to address them post-event.
  • Schedule. Be aware of other events in and around yours. Are there major sporting events that could decrease your attendance, hinder your guests from arriving or change parking & transportation? Are there other events at your venue that will decrease your decoration or tear-down time? Again, these may or may not be issues to share with your guests up front, but you might have to address the backlash after.

Getting The Word Out

Of course, event planning isn’t really my area of expertise (although I’m learning more and more as I get more involved with additional events). I’m all about the social and digital side of things. So, getting your word out about changes is where I come in:

  • Website.First and foremost, get your website updated. Both the homepage and any interior page where people might look for details. Not everyone comes to your site through the homepage – they bookmark what’s important to them. So, include updates on the event info, packet pickup, and especially the contact pages of your website. By having the information on your site, all other tactics below will have a single place to point to where the details are stored. You website is first and foremost your repository of information.
    • If you have separate sites for your organization and your event, be sure the message makes it to both places! Even if your org update simply says “Important: we have a parking update!” and links to the event site, be sure you’ve called attention to it.
  • Email. Send out mass emails to your participants with important updates. You don’t have to tell them about every little adjustment, but make sure the big ones like parking changes, venue changes, and other issues that will affect ALL participants are shared as early as possible – but only once the change is set. You don’t want to confuse anyone with multiple changes if possible.
  • Social Media. Put the word on Facebook and use the “Feature Post” option. If you make the announcement several days before the advance, you’ll probably need to repeat it to be sure people see it. If you use Twitter, you will definitely need to repeat the statement multiple times to be sure it’s seen!
  • Text Messages. If you have the ability, text your participants with updates. You don’t need to include full details, just something like “Event Parking Updates. Please visit our website for full details.
  • Standard Media. If you have a connection with any news outlets on radio or TV ask them to share your message if possible. This isn’t exactly in the realm of what we consider “social media” – but it will get your important updates out there! If warranted, try to get a representative of your organization or event on the news making a rehearsed and confident statement as to what is happening. and how it is being handled.
  • Status Lending. Ask your vendors, sponsors and participants themselves to spread the word. Someone might miss your specific update but they could see one from a friend or associate who helps spread the word.

What To Say…And What To Avoid

Language use is always important in social media but never more so than during a crisis or emergency situation.  Here’s some tips on what to say (or not say) to your followers and fans:

  • Don’t hide. You’ve got people depending on you to lead your event. If something is going wrong, handle it and explain it. Now is not the time to become an ostrich.
  • Be honest. The majority of human beings will understand when something goes wrong. Be straightforward with them and they’ll (mostly) forgive and eventually forget.
  • Avoid apologies. Or at least, over apologizing. Again, people will forgive and forget without you constantly saying you’re sorry. In fact, if you apologize too much for too long, many will start to question if there was something more you could have done. Apology = one (maybe two) and done
  • Be timely. Humans, as a species, do not respond to quick change well and usually need time to adjust. Sometimes, a change of venue or a change of entertainment will change someone’s desire to come. You shouldn’t “trick” them into still attending! If you know a week before that something is probably changing, consider a preemptive announcement like “Possible change in venue…please stay tuned for updates.” Then be sure to let them know either way with messages like “Our kick ass event will now be held at [new place]!” or “Thankfully, we don’t have to change venues! Thanks for sticking with us!”
  • Avoid last-minute announcements. While you might be constantly thinking about the logistics of the event, your participants have a different agenda. A few hours before an event, they’re doing their hair, giving directions to the sitter, warming up before the run, and a million other personal activities, not worrying if the parking, the entertainment, or the location changed – that’s all set, right? They probably aren’t going to be checking their emails, reading their Facebook or Twitter streams, or reviewing your website. The day of the event is definitely not the time to tell them it’s now happening across town (unless you have no choice). Also, the larger the event, the more time you need to give for changes whenever possible. If travel is involved for your participants, this is by far the most important rule!
  • Address feelings. One thing that can definitely be learned from the Marathon is that people will be angry, sad and frustrated with changes that occur during a crisis situation. Address those feelings. No, the marathon being cancelled is in no measure the same as what others were going through in New York overall – but no one has ever said that it is!  However, the runners had every right to feel sad at losing something they had trained so hard to attain. They understand WHY it happened, but logic and emotion rarely walk hand-in-hand They also had a right to be frustrated at being told it would happen, that it would actually benefit the city to hold it, and then be told it was cancelled three days later when many of them were already in the city. My friend Amanda sums up this point pretty well on her site as one of those sad and frustrated runners.
  • Stay Positive. Avoid the defensive or the downer statements. If people complain, address their concerns individually and offline. Remember the rules to dealing with the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. If the situation is so extensive that you must cancel the event, do it as soon as possible, as calmly and understandingly as possible and with an open ear to what people are really saying.

All in all, I hope you can see why having a Crisis Management Plan in place will be better for you and for your attendees. As the saying goes, it is always better to have and not need than to need and not have!

Please note: I would like to request that no one take this post as a chance to voice your opinions on the 2012 New York Marathon. I use the race and Hurricane Sandy in this post only as examples of a major crisis effecting many participants and the importance of needing a Crisis Management Plan in place for your event. We all have opinions about the events of the past week, some positive and some negative, but this is not the forum to share those. I’m sure our time and energy is better spent on focusing on the positives in life (and our events) rather than sharing anything negative. I do reserve the right to not publish inappropriate comments.

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