The hostage taking incident last week at Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, MD, (less than 10 miles from the White House in Washington) has quickly faded from the news pages. Yet a couple of notes regarding new media and crisis planning and communications are worth making.
The hostage taker was shot and killed by Montgomery County (MD) law enforcement. And because no one else was physically injured, the news media packed it in and most of the coverage was over within a day of the event.
The good news was that Discovery had an emergency plan and followed it. The company used an internal public address system with the first alert, and then sent a series of emails to all employees at the headquarters location. The first email instructed employees to stay at their desks, quickly followed by a directive to find a locked office, the next told them to go to a specific stairwell and leave the building. Children in the on-site day care center were evacuated to a fast food location soon after the incident began.
After the incident was over, Discovery’s spokesperson was appropriately effusive in his praise of law enforcement. He was almost as effusive in thanking all of the employees of the company in how they followed the evacuation and emergency plans.
Was the plan perfect? No. But it was pretty darn good since no employee or visitor was hurt. Yet, Discovery is now going back to review building access procedures. Email was used to communicate with employees; which assumes that almost all have access to a work station. A public address system gets word to all, but it might have also further enraged the hostage taker. Text messages, which many universities now use to alert students, can’t reach all employees.
Another important reminder is that crisis and emergency plans need to be “drilled.” Fire and rescue personnel know that their success in emergencies is dependent on the number of times they drill. Similarly, employees must participate in fire drills, know the correct procedures and know where the exits are.
As to social media, Twitter showed its role in communicating the breaking news. The first photo of the hostage taker was taken by an employee, who passed the photo to one or two other employees before it was posted to Twitpic. (Tweets can viewed http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23discovery.) The local DC news organizations rapidly sent teams to cover the events, and used their websites and twitter accounts to send frequent updates. Washington Post columnist Paul Farhi backhandedly gave Twitter its due http://tinyurl.com/2chclly then discussed the role of regular reporters and editors to collect the news.
I liked the discussion of the role of professionally trained news gathers and editors in taking breaking news and providing a lens and perspective on the events. “We can’t let raw info go out over the air. The front end is new, but we still have to do our work at the back end” said a news editor from a DC television station. The Post column gave me a sense that Farhi was reluctantly assenting to the fact that that while Twitter might have its place in instant news, he preferred the “move over boys” professionals who came onto the scene. The reality is that photos, videos and soon streaming video will increasingly come from citizens and bloggers. This unfortunate incident was another example of how the rules are still evolving in the information dissemination age.