How to Keep Communication Flowing During a Crisis

A crisis—any sudden, unexpected event, whether it’s a health issue, an act of God or a terrorist attack—has the potential to challenge your event’s success. It creates uncertainty and stress for your attendees and your team, and it necessitates cool-headed, quick responses. Your event needs a crisis management plan that lays out effective communications for a variety of scenarios.

Such guidance was crucial when our SmithBucklin team was planning an event in Boston and learned of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013. In two days, we had a 200-delegate scientific group scheduled to meet at a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with every business and organization operating in the Boston area at that time, we faced some critical decisions: Should we hold our event, cancel it or postpone it? A number of logistical questions followed. That’s why it’s vital to have a plan in place outlining how best to contend with a crisis. Following are some basics on how to work through a crisis management and communication plan:

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Develop a crisis management template for your organization that is modified and updated at the start of every event-planning process. Besides adapting to the client, event and venue, the proposal should be customized to comply with the venue’s emergency procedures. The crisis management plan takes effect on day one of your event planning, and it evolves as your team receives more information.

2. Identify important roles and players. Outline a list of contacts and each team member’s responsibility in communicating with those contacts. Be in close communication with the hotel’s management and security personnel to verify information and emergency procedures. For the Boston event, our team sent out email updates and conducted conference calls with the organization’s leaders, the event’s program committee and our company’s management team. We emailed regular updates to the event’s attendees to share information while mitigating adverse effects, and we also notified insurance companies and discussed cancellation procedures and other relevant issues related to the event.

3. Review, review, review. Leave nothing to chance. Once we arrived in Boston, every detail of the crisis plan was checked again. Our first step was to ensure we had hard-line connections for both Internet and phone in case Wi-Fi or cellular service was shut down. We walked through evacuation routes and emergency procedures with hotel staff. We also made paper copies of important documents as backup in case of a power outage.

4. Keep attendees informed. By using multiple forms of communication, you help ensure the right messages are reaching attendees, partners and your team. In Boston, the first day of the event transpired without incident. However, on the second night, police activity related to the bombings’ suspects caused management to lock down the hotel. We were prepared. The event manager, hotel general manager and on-site team were in constant communication, and attendees were kept informed through email, text alerts, hotel message boards and in-session announcements.

Not all crises are this extreme. But even a minor incident should trigger the crisis management plan so you communicate, document and report the incident properly. As a result, you will help keep your event running smoothly, ensure the safety and well-being of your attendees and team, and earn respect and confidence for effectively managing a crisis.

Alex Zapple, CMP, CEM, is a manager in event services at SmithBucklin, where she is responsible for planning, organizing and managing conventions, trade shows and other meetings for several client organizations. Contact her at