Communicating a Crisis

Grand CanyonExploring risk attenuation and crisis communication after a plague death in Grand Canyon by Laura  Rickard, Katherine McComas, Christopher Clarke, Richard  Stedman, and Daniel  Decker

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Key Takeaways:

  • Success in managing and communicating a an organization in crisis is rooted in establishing communication and infrastructure prior.
  • In communicating a crisis, a concerted effort should be taken to avoid pinning blame as its unproductive and ultimately damaging.
  • Managerial competence, however hard to measure, is a key aspect to success.
  • Since managing risk amplification during a crisis is a dynamic and changing response, an organization has to be working as a team respecting individual expertise and responsibility.
  • Its best to only release fully confirmed information to the general publics, while conveying information as it happens internally.
  • Any positives to be taken in the aftermath of a crisis, such as improving procedures or gaining knowledge will help return to normalcy and color the incident in a more positive light later.

The plague death of Eric York had all the elements of a story sensationalized by the national media. York died after contracting plague from a mountain lion at Grand Canyon National Park, where he worked as a biologist. Yes, the same plague from your history books, and at a popular famous tourist destination. It could’ve been sensationalized as a tragic death due to an ancient disease at a picturesque place, but the little media attention it gathered shows as an example of effective risk management and a competent response to a difficult crisis.

The national media can sensationalize and exaggerate. Media can feed off things like a lack of information and give rise to rampant speculation. So how did the Grand Canyon avoid that fate?

Grand Canyon is an interesting case. Even though its famous, its relatively isolated, unlike say Yosemite Park. There is no real metropolitan area nearby. The people of Nevada are also aware of plague, which reduces the shock value of a plague death then in say, the Northeast. But there’s more in the story, such as the successful and dynamic response to the crisis.

A recent Cornell University study investigated how successfully York’s death at Grand Canyon was managed. The author were interested if theoretical concepts from risk managing could be combined with practical crisis communication procedures to fill in the gaps in each. The authors held a two day workshop consisting of interviews with those who responded to York’s death. This was a highly facilitated and structured procedure, preceded by significant groundwork that included extensive information gathering. During the workshop the respondents, a wide survey that included Canyon employees, journalists, and health employees, worked through over a timeline of events. Two separate secessions were conducted – one with just managers and one with the rank and file, to maximize openness and honesty.

The success in managing the tragedy at Grand Canyon is rooted in steps taken before the incident. The nature of the incident required communication across different organizations and departments and levels (county, state, and national), often a sticking point in crisis management. But the parties involved had pre-accumulated trust, and knew exactly who to call. That’s because there was structure in place already before the tragedy and the lines of communication were well traveled from communicating previous incidents like bouts of norovirus or injuries to travelers. Even if nothing before it was comparable to York’s death, everyone already knew their place in the machine and what cog they were. People who responded were already in appropriate response teams and had binders full of information to reference. Those who responded to the York death stressed how prioritizing sharing information was key.

Also key was that the superintendent of Grand Canyon Park had logged significant face time with stakeholders. This included talking to local residents, public health officials, and even members of Congress. This increased trust and improved the respondents view of those in charge, and enforces the importance of managerial competence during crisis communication.

The crisis management itself was also a success. As with any crisis uncertainty is unavoidable, but manageable. The Grand canyon only released fully confirmed information to the public, leaving no risk of leaking wrong informational or speculation. It was ten days after York’s death before the park confirmed that it was plague. One journalist criticized that if plague was a possibility it should’ve been communicated earlier as a public health risk, but to those at risk they were given a prophylactic and kept in the know.

Awareness was increased with those who were at an increased risk of plague. Although there was tension between this heightened awareness and complacency, like the biologists who worked at Grand Canyon knew the risk of say, contracting plague from removing a dead animal was real but very low. York’s death and the resulting measures increased the legitimacy and saliency of the risk.

To those holding stake in the crisis, information was provided as it developed. This helped both parties, again furthering trust and fostering open communication. Individual expertise was respected, with one interviewee noting no one got “turfy.” At the end of the day it was Grand Canyon’s park and responsibility, which was respected. This was stressed as a key aspect of success – ultimately it was Grand Canyon park and their say was final.

The establishing of a key contact health professional allowed many agencies to talk in one voice. This was key as it encouraged public trust and credibility, while allowing a health professional to aptly deal with technical vernacular. Even public health agencies that were not directly involved in the investigation were kept in the loop, to further improve trust and help these hospitals deal with concerns from the public.

The media coverage was mainly local, and by all accounts not a huge story. The press coverage was not speculative, and mostly reported what the press release and park officials stated. This was likely to due a concerted effort by the park to limit public information to confirmed information. Also, the coverage did not pin down blame at one person or facet of incident. This was again a concerted effort by the park to not blame anyone, even if potential targets did exist.

The post crisis stage is the most nebulous. It is still ongoing for some members of the investigation, and this lead to a “new normal” slowly being established. Some positives even came out of the crisis. A wildlife safety manual was created about research safety and this became enforced by NPS leadership. This safety manual even has been requested by other parks and researchers. The people and departments closest to York were the slowest to reach their new normal equilibria. Some reached their normal in weeks, while others are still getting calls about it. For those closest to York, it will likely never be forgotten.

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