The stage collapse last month at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven people and injured dozens more has led to an increased demand for crisis communications plans, said executives at local public relations firms.
Nationally, the 9/11 terrorist attack and the proliferation of the Internet and social media—where information and misinformation spread quicker than ever—have made crisis communications a more urgent corporate need.
That point was driven home locally Aug. 13 when a thunderstorm packing high winds toppled rigging on the State Fair’s grandstand stage, where a Sugarland concert was about to get under way.
Almost immediately after the incident, the Internet was flooded with information and rumors about the events of that evening.
“The awareness of the need for crisis communication has been on the rise, but the State Fair tragedy certainly made it top of mind for everyone locally,” said Lisa Sirkin Vielee, who operates Fishers-based Gracie Communications. “We’re finding that more [companies] want to have a formal plan or to revisit the plan they have.”
It’s not uncommon, Vielee said, for weather-related events to spark increased interest in corporate crisis communications.
“The State Fair scenario was certainly an extreme,” Vielee said, “but we also saw a similar [increase in demand] after the ice storm in February.”
With the rise of lower-cost computers and printers and the proliferation of easy-to-use desktop publishing programs, demand for many services offered by traditional marketing and communications firms has eroded. But the need for crisis communication consultation has not faded—not even in a down economy, local communications practitioners said.
Although there are few national statistics on how much revenue marketing and communications firms derive from crisis communications consultation and implementation, several local agency heads said the demand has doubled in the last five to 10 years.
Myra Borshoff Cook, who founded her firm, now known as Borshoff, 27 years ago, said crisis communications work now accounts for about 15 percent of her firm’s workload.
Cook refuses to call on companies after they have endured some kind of trauma or tragedy.
“To me, it feels a little too much like ambulance chasing,” Cook said.
Still, clients in various states of distress seem to find Borshoff, which is one of the best-known Indianapolis firms offering crisis communications services.
“Most often, we get a call from the lawyer representing a company,” Cook said. “A lot of times, those crisis calls come from companies that are simply unprepared for what is facing them.”
In the days following the State Fair incident, Borshoff was called by a representative of Greenfield-based Mid-America Sound Corp., which owns and provided the staging for the Sugarland concert. Mid-America is now a Borshoff client. Cook was quick to add that her client was not responsible for setting up the rigging that collapsed.
Locally based Caldwell VanRiper has added the Indiana State Fair as a client since the incident.
“It’s not always the case that an organization isn’t prepared for a crisis, but it’s that they still have to handle day-to-day operations,” said Stephanie McFarland, CVR’s director of strategic communications. “With something like this, you can get inundated with 40 to 50 media calls a day, and it can be difficult to handle those calls and your daily operations.”
A comprehensive crisis communications plan goes far beyond dealing with the media, though that can be a big part of it.
“It’s important to have a plan to communicate with a whole host of stakeholders from the media to a company’s own employees,” said McFarland, who also teaches crisis communications classes at IUPUI.
Despite increased awareness, McFarland said the two biggest mistakes in crisis communication are “not having a plan and not practicing it.”
Cook added that 75 percent of her firm’s work in crisis communication is reactive, while only 25 percent is preparatory.
“For a lot of companies, it’s difficult to look past the most immediate need, getting the product out the door,” Cook said. “When a crisis arises, that’s when we hear from them.”•