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Lessons in Crisis Public Relations…When You Are the Crisis


Photo of a boat at DragonBoat

Last weekend I packed my stuff and officially joined the 2nd annual Montana Dragon Boat Festival held on beautiful Flathead Lake as a member of the Montana Office of Tourism team. As the agency of record for the Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau (the event host) our PR department spent months generating press releases and story pitches about the event. We spent hours talking about the benefits of dragon boat racing to a wide variety of audiences — it promotes a healthy lifestyle and many teams participating comprise breast cancer survivors, it’s a great team-building exercise for businesses and their employees, anybody of any age can do it, the festival generates a significant amount of revenue for the area with more than 2,000 paddlers competing and 6,500 spectators viewing the two-day event, and it’s really really fun.

However, we failed to spend time on what happens when Mother Nature decides to step in and take control.

So, there I was on Friday, me the newbie, all ready to get in the boat with my teammates for our mandatory pre-event training session when a bit of breeze kicked up. Well, for anyone that knows about wind and water … a bit of a breeze can mean a lot more when you are out on large water. Our coach’s planning quickly adjusted: get us in our boat and out onto smoother waters, and then give us our training. Well, that never happened.

We had barely paddled out of the docking area when 2- to 3-foot waves aimed our way. They were big waves. We immediately went into survival mode just to keep the boat upright. All thoughts of “training” were gone. Of course almost immediately we flipped the boat. As we spent the next hour treading water (while our coach and steersman bailed out the boat), I had plenty of time to ponder the fact that with all the PR work we did promoting what a great event dragon boating was, it never crossed my mind what if something went wrong. I know, I know, I’m in PR … I’ve dealt with crisis management issues before … but on this particular day, I was just Suzanne, on vacation … not thinking about work.

Good news / bad news: we were not the only boat to flip during that particular training run (though we were the only boat to flip twice AND lose its steersman). Good news: all boats prior to and after our particular training session went off without a hitch.

But suddenly Friday afternoon much was heard about inclement weather and what that meant for the actual outcome of the festival. And while a handful of folks on my team were hesitant to get out on the water again after their time in the water, festival organizers didn’t really see a crisis — after all, if you are involved in water sports you are bound to get wet. The majority of people at the event were of the same mindset. Boating, water, you get wet. It was decided that barring any more storms and/or lightening, the event would continue — there is on-site medical staff, search and rescue boats on standby, and everyone wears life jackets. Got safety covered. Problem solved, right?

DragonBoat_SuzThurst_2013_Final

Saturday arrived and the weather was perfect.

Just as I was headed out to race my first heat, a Google alert hit my email inbox. Our mishaps made the front page of the local newspaper and much to my chagrin, no one from the press had reached out to contact either our agency or the Kalispell CVB. Luckily my co-worker Lori was on top of it. She got the alert, read the article, drafted a response and contacted our client so its staff could immediately respond. The client was busy working the festival so hadn’t seen the paper, so Lori’s immediate reaction (on a Saturday with her family, no less) was much appreciated. Crisis averted.

So, what did I learn from this experience?

1. What one person sees as a “crisis” others may not, so moving forward our department (and the client) will be more cognizant of all the potential issues surrounding this event (weather, injury) and be prepared to answer should these issues arise.

2. Having someone on the ground and/or constantly watching the media during the event is a must, even when that means working long days or weekends.

3. Pack quick-drying clothes.

4. Dragon Boat racing is a hell of a lot of fun!

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