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Plan For the Worst

The past few week’s floods, hurricanes, and wild fires are a reminder that event planners need emergency plans that are comprehensive, up-to-date, and easy to implement. Of course, the time to plan for a catastrophe is before it happens, but few of us actually do so beyond a vague notion of what we would likely do. Planners’ organizational skills are high value in a time of crises but success relies on preparation. While we all know how to contact security, call 9-1-1 or where to shelter when severe weather sirens sound, event planners need to work with colleagues to develop bigger-picture emergency plans.

College campuses are hosts to hundreds of events annually, many of which are held by off-campus groups, organizations, companies, and even religious congregations. Such meetings are often managed from a variety of offices ranging from continuing education to conferences, special events, and individual colleges. Having a plan for communicating with meeting planners and event hosts when disaster strikes is imperative and often overlooked. Planning for the worst means deciding when and how events will be cancelled in case of major emergencies of the scope that close campus. These are things like tornadoes, floods, epidemic sickness, fires, or in our case, a shooting during the work day. It’s fairly easy to halt routine on-campus activities, but what about things like athletic contests, concerts, meetings, and bookings from external organizations? People from far out of the local area (speakers, for example) may already be en route and unaware of the situation.  Incredibly, even though our campus was closed after the shootings, off-campus clients who had reserved event space still wanted to hold their functions, something that was impossible because campus had been emptied and was on total lock-down.

Before a bad situation arrives on your doorstep, gather a team to create a plan for how events will be cancelled in case of emergency. The first step is to be certain you and your staff are signed-on to emergency notification systems via text, e-mail, and voice. Use multiple numbers and addresses for each person to be certain messages get through.

Begin by creating a campus-wide events crisis management committee composed of people who can get things done then meet to develop a protocol for crisis event management.

A comprehensive campus plan should identify:

*Who has the authority to implement the plan?

*How communication will be handled.

*Who has log-in access to scheduling software and is capable of running it under stress. Can it be accessed remotely? Know the cell numbers for several people who can do this.

*A check-off system for recording whether each group was successfully contacted. Require confirmation from each representative to verify the message was received.

*Names, cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses of key people on campus including A/V and IT, campus safety, catering, facilities, grounds, and space schedulers.

*Overall campus emergency procedures.

*Your duty station. Where will you go? Where will you work from?

*Venues. Know what capabilities are in your inventory in case an assembly point is needed for the president to make an address, to host the media, shelter people, or hold a vigil or memorial service. Know who is responsible for scheduling and unlocking each space and have his or her cell number. Know the capacity for seating, AV, catering, handicapped access, and parking.

*Put the plan in writing and keep it on your phone and computer. Because staff come and go, cell phone numbers change, and office duties get rearranged, update it monthly and distribute it to everyone on the team.

*Review your reservation procedures. All event reservations should be in writing and include full contact information. Be certain contracts contain cancellation language. Get signatures for even the most routine meeting.

 

 

 

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Perception is Reality

 

We will likely never know the true intention of New Jersey Gov. Christies’ July 4 weekend trip to his private beach while the adjacent state park beach was closed due to his government‘s shutdown. Was it a “let them eat cake” gesture, or simply a callous obliviousness to how his behavior would be perceived? It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. His beach trip was interpreted as an “in your face” message to New Jersey’s lawmakers and citizens. It created a firestorm of negative press and outrage from people across the country. There are lessons here for leaders, event planners, and protocol professionals.

Every move our principals make, whether they are university presidents, elected officials, military officers, or corporate CEOs, is only a disgruntled tweet or unflattering cell phone photo away from controversy. The university president leaves an awards function early. Some will interpret the fact as someone has angered her, or she disapproves of something, when in reality, she has to attend two more events before day’s end. The mayor doesn’t show up for a ribbon cutting instead sending a surrogate because an urgent matter has arisen at city hall. People may read this as a snub to the new business. The senator doesn’t personally greet everyone in the room leaving some people feeling slighted. They make negative comments on social media.

In an interesting ed.TED talk called, “Truth vs. Perception vs. Reality,” (ed.ted.com/on/AsddeXsA) Trevor Maber gives an insightful explanation of how our brains zoom to conclusions based on what we see when a current situation is compared against our experiences, emotions, and assumptions. Sadly, our brains often jump to incorrect conclusions because we don’t have all the facts. We believe what we see.

While we can’t control the behavior of our principals, we can help steer them away from potential perception PR disasters by

  1. Being situationally aware. Knowing the issues and political climate, who will be present and what their agendas might be. (The mood of the populace after losing their traditional July 4 beach visit was not favorable.)
  2. Being willing to modify plans to enhance or avoid situations. (An announcement from the podium during the president’s introduction that she is present to welcome the gathering and then must leave, could potentially avoid negative speculation.)
  3. Being willing to make suggestions to the boss and apprise him or her of possible situations or consequences. (People might be angered, sir, if you use your private beach when theirs is closed.)

An important component of leadership is leading by example, and most seasoned leaders do this very well, but sometimes, principals may not realize how their behavior might be perceived. The governor had the perfect right to sit on his private beach, regardless of what anyone might think. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad PR.

As event planners and protocol professionals it is our job to help prevent disastrous episodes by thinking and acting in the best interest of our leaders to avoid potential problems. Afterall, we are the people responsible for arrangements, itineraries, and guest lists.

A five-course gourmet meal with expensive wines for the board of trustees on the day they vote to increase tuition and announce no pay raises, is an unseemly juxtaposition and one that could easily be avoided. An astute planner would discreetly and quickly work with the chef to modify plans.

The next time the planner sees the supposedly snubbed supporter’s name on a guest list, she cues the boss and tactfully orchestrates a personal greeting.

In the case of the beach outing, a planner could diplomatically offer a list of enticing alternative activities.

Some principals accept guidance readily and others may never do so. But while suggestions and work-arounds may not always be adopted, you’ll sleep better knowing you did your best to avoid a problem.