5 Crisis Communication Questions Answered in the Aftermath of the Vegas Shooting

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I recently read an article published by the Las Vegas Review Journal analyzing the crisis communication response of the Mandalay Bay Resort following the deadly October 1 shooting. The article posed two conflicting viewpoints regarding the response efforts. The views are as follows:

View one: Mandalay Bay Resort could have ‘done more’ to communicate via social media following the shooting. Some academics believe the resort did not follow a well-trained crisis communication plan based upon their responses and the delay in response time (a few hours post-shooting).

View two: Mandalay Bay Resort communicated adequately. Academics asked the question, “what more should Mandalay Bay have posted?” Stating, “in something that was so chaotic and so difficult, I’m not sure if social media messages could have helped people make better decisions.

Curious to hear a different perspective, I reached out to Firestorm Expert Council member, Dr. Robert Chandler, for his views of the communication response. Dr. Chandler is a leading research authority on communication during crisis and disaster events. He has written various articles for Firestorm that can be read here, in addition to hosting a 6-session webinar series detailing how to communicate during a crisis. I sat down with Dr. Chandler and asked him a series of five questions.

If you had been the communications director for the Resort following the shooting, what would you have done?

Dr. Robert Chandler (RC): The Resort and Hotel (and their parent company) should have a matrix of communication goals/needs/objectives for crisis situations sorted by target audiences. Using that matrix, it should be determined, in advance of an event, which communication channels (modalities) are the optimal methods for communicating (both sending and receiving messages) the specific communication goals/needs/objectives to each of the audience groups. They should also have alternative methods (channels or modalities identified in the event that a primary method isn’t successfully getting the message through to the targeted audience. This is the foundation for an emergency/crisis communication plan. In this case, I would have followed the plan.

Specifically, to whether it is good or bad to use or not use any particular communication method (i.e. website or social media) the answer has to be “it depends.” There are some messages for some audiences for whom a particular channel would seem to be both appropriate and effective with which to connect. Likewise, the same could be said for timing of certain messages. The bottom line is that there has to be a communication plan, with accompanying protocols, procedures, methods and messages which should be adaptable during horrific events such as this.

Do you believe Mandalay Bay Resort utilized a crisis communications plan?

(RC): I think that they may be have had a crisis communication plan but (as is so often the case) it should be upgraded and adapted to the challenges of communication in situations such as this one.

This tragic episode raises multiple questions for law enforcement, hotel (business) security and general public/event safety preparedness. Among these are important questions about whether better communication processes and procedures internally, as well as with interagency linkages, might have allowed law enforcement to respond more quickly and perhaps act sooner to stop the gunman before he had full opportunity to further commit the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Did poor communication planning, lack of communication coordination procedures and limited communication tools and technology hamper or delay an effective response in the Las Vegas sniper massacre? I don’t think that we have a final answer to this question, at least not yet. Whether it did or didn’t, the corresponding question is equally important: Could better communication planning, more effective communication coordination, enhanced communication procedures, better communication tools and technology (along with more emphasis on training and preparation) improve the response to a mass shooting or active shooter event such as this? In my opinion, the answer to such a question is probably yes.

Did the Mandalay Bay communications plan appear to be a trained/practiced plan?

(RC): There are some indications that opportunities for more training and practice regarding the communication plan existed.

For example, according to news reports, there is some reason to believe that Mandalay Bay hotel officials did not immediately notify police about a shooting in a hotel hallway inside the high-rise which occurred before the massacre commenced – or at least until some point after the gunman had subsequently opened fire on the crowd. If these news reports are accurate, this suggests there may have been a delay of at least six minutes, possibly longer, in the hotel summoning police to the specific scene on the 32nd floor, both before the shooting began or even while it was occurring. It also means that in the critical first minutes when law enforcement was responding to the mass shooting (as it was unfolding) that they didn’t have this potentially vital information communicated to them.

To be fair, we do not fully know all of facts yet, and both the Las Vegas police and the Mandalay Bay’s corporate parent, MGM Resorts International, have not answered direct questions about whether or when the hotel notified law enforcement about the hallway shooting in the minutes before and during the time when the massacre began. MGM has said the chronology timeline released by police is inaccurate, but it has not said what was wrong with it. It is also useful to acknowledge that six minutes might not have been enough time for responding officers to arrive and stop the attack before it started. A six-minute head start with knowledge of a location, however, might have been an edge to help stop the shooting sooner than it otherwise ended. We do know that the entire situation was chaotic and confusing and that there were many potential “chokepoints” for communication and information sharing during a very short time period. It does not take much to use this as a learning tool for seeking to streamline and improve communication processes for future dangerous events.

One aspect of the narrative timeline of the events related to the shooter is the fact that a hotel maintenance worker (Stephen Schuck) reported he requested hotel security dispatchers to call police and report a gunman had fired with what he believed was a rifle inside the Mandalay Bay hotel before the shooter subsequently began firing from his high-rise suite into the crowd at the nearby musical performance. Yet, according to law enforcement provided timeline, they were not notified of this information in the approximately 6 to 10-minute interval between Schuck’s report to hotel security and when the shooting commenced. Nor did law enforcement receive Schuck’s report relayed to them in the critical time period once the mass shooting had begun. Schuck says he was checking out a report of a jammed fire door on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay when he first heard gunshots and reported it to the Mandalay Bay security office.

In addition, a hotel security guard, who had also been shot in the leg by the gunman before the mass shooting of the crowd commenced, had taken refuge in an alcove on that floor level at the same time as Schuck sought cover. Law enforcement officials have said that they believe gunman shot the hotel security guard through the door of his suite at least six minutes before he subsequently unleashed a hailstorm of bullets into the concert crowd below his suite. The injured guard used his radio (and possibly a hallway phone) to also alert hotel dispatchers seeking help. Yet, neither the report from the security guard nor the maintenance worker were relayed to Law Enforcement authorities before or during the gunman’s rampage.

Without blame casting aspersions on anyone involved or on the actions taken/not taken during a chaotic and dangerous situation, is it still prudent to ask whether there were steps which could have been taken to have in place a better communication process, specific producers and specific communication tools to ensure that such reports are quickly and efficiently relayed to the proper authorities? I’ll take the modest approach of suggesting that there is always room for improvement and that additional training preparation is a good thing.

There is no cookie-cutter crisis communication plan applicable to all organizations; however, what key components should every organization include in their plans?

(RC): As I mentioned previously, everyone should have a thoughtful map or matrix of communication goals/needs/objectives for crisis situations sorted by target audiences. Further, I recommend that they consider the various communication goals for different audiences over the lifecycle of a crisis event (I have a widely cited 6 Stage Model that illustrates this concept). Using such a master matrix, it should be determined, in advance of an event, which communication channels (modalities) are the optimal methods for communicating (both sending and receiving messages) the specific communication goals/needs/objectives to each of the audience groups at each stage of the crisis. One should also have alternative methods (channels or modalities) identified in the event that a primary method isn’t successfully pushing the message through to the targeted audience. This is the foundation for a emergency/crisis communication plan.

Specifically, the crisis lifecycle for a mass shooting event has a very short “acute” phase period (and a long series of aftermath and recovery periods).
The acute incident phase of a shooting begins and ends in such a short period of time (statistically these start and begin in an average of under 15 minutes) – that by the time first responders arrive on the scene, the shooting is usually over and either the shooter has fled or has killed himself. Minutes and seconds are always important in such shooting episodes. Since these incidents are so spontaneous and lethal, timing and protocols for communication is a critical link.

It is clear that every type of organization, business, school or public venue should create an emergency communication plan that addresses critical policies and procedures for: reporting, responding, alerting and reacting to emergencies. The plan should be created by gathering input from various stakeholders and external partners including health care providers, local law enforcement and/or emergency responders.

Among the communication considerations should be the ability to align your communication strategy and protocols for/with the following key constituents:

  • Communicating with law enforcement (as well as fire dispatch, etc.) – have protocols and procedures in place with training and practice
  • Internal operations (employee-to-employee communication) – have a notification system and procedures in place.
  • Communicating to guests, customers and all employees (employee-to-customer) – have a well-rehearsed notification plan
  • Linkages to other key external partners (tenants, neighbors, community, health care providers, etc.)
  • Crisis team/crisis leadership at corporate headquarters

Train your people and test your communication plan. Ensure that you have a resilient and redundant (back-ups and alternatives) communication protocols. Prepare your key people to function quickly, efficiently and predictably. Run a table top exercise and/or simulate an active shooter situation – include practical tests of all communication notification procedures, test connect and linkages and rehearse communication messages. Include periodic large-scale drills or mock exercise walkthroughs.

Active shooter situations may be preventable. Assess behavioral risks and take appropriate steps to mitigate and minimize the risks of workplace violence whenever possible. Not all active shooter events may be preventable; however, even in these cases, the amount of damage, injuries and lives lost can be minimized. Among the steps is to remember that fast, accurate and reliable communication matters. It matters most when time is short and the stakes are high. The Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre reminds us once again that we must better prepare to communicate in these horrific situations.

As tragic as the situation in Las Vegas was and continues to be, what advice would you provide to organizations? What can they learn from the tragedy and how can they better prepare in the future?

(RC): The real threat is complacency and failure to prepare. Overcoming that is the most important action item that can be gleaned from this horror. But, to be direct to the point regarding communication: better communication planning, developing effective communication procedures, ensuring successful training and building resilient personnel (along with utilizing appropriate communication tools) can enhance the response time and keep our communication on point to better protect people during the next horrific tragedy is a core take away.

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