SBJ/September 24 - 30, 2001/Opinion

Don’t wait for crisis to write a crisis plan

The tragedy that took place nearly two weeks ago has raised many questions about crisis and how to manage it. I, like many around the world, sat in front of the TV watching, listening — and thinking. How will the sports world react in the wake of these events? How will leagues and teams handle the dilemmas presented to them? And, how will they communicate to their fans and the public at large? What will be their message?

The events that happened in New York, Washington and outside Pittsburgh did not directly involve sports, but they impacted organizations around the world. Teams and leagues at both professional and college levels have had to deal with this event in some manner. No other event in recent memory has affected every level of sport like this one, though some have come close.

In teaching crisis communications, I have developed a list of potential crises that could affect a sports organization based on events that have already happened. The list includes travel accidents (remember the Oklahoma State basketball team plane crash?), area disasters (accident during the construction of Miller Park), natural disasters (an earthquake at the start of the 1989 World Series) and terrorism (1972 and 1996 Olympic Games).

The exact type of crisis may not affect your organization directly, but creating a list and thinking whether that particular event could affect your organization is the first step in being prepared. If the event is something you may have to deal with, you need to think how to be ready. It easier to prepare in advance than to handle the situation during the chaos of the moment.

Most professional leagues have a plan to handle a tragedy like the loss of an entire team. But how prepared are they to effectively and efficiently communicate with the media, and thus the public, when the next crisis hits in this world of 24-hour-a-day sports news? Few really are.

From a communications standpoint, the NFL and NBA are probably the best prepared. A written checklist has been readied to make sure a uniform procedure is followed, from contacting senior executives to formulating a statement.

I spent six years with the NHL as a member of the communications staff, and there was no written crisis communications plan. It was an area the league was starting to address. It is still a work in progress. Similarly, MLB has been through its share of crises, but no formal written plan exists.

At the team level, many do not have a written crisis plan. The public relations director or college sports information director will be looked to for guidance in a time of crisis. One area that must be addressed is how to handle the crush of media representatives who will be looking for any piece of news.

The only NHL teams that I know of that have written crisis communications plans were the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild. Larry Kelly, the Stars' director of public relations, has been though many crises during his tenure, including goaltender Ed Belfour's run-in with the police. Whenever there is a crisis, Kelly has been called in to help the organization respond to the media and get the right messages out. With the year-old franchise in Minnesota, one of the first things Bill Robertson, the team's vice president of communications, put in was a written crisis plan. It started the franchise in the right direction.

Hopefully this tragic event has made sports organizations or any organization consider preparing for a crisis situation. And the time to begin preparing is immediately. All departments of the organization should be involved — from ownership to marketing, from ticketing to the players and coaches. A crisis is an event that affects everyone. As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is fond of saying, "Everything is related to everything else." When there is a crisis, that adage is very true.

Before teaching my class at the University of Massachusetts Amherst the day after the tragedy, I sought out Todd Crosset, a colleague who teaches Sociology of Sport. Something he said stuck with me. He believes this event will be "a defining moment in the lives of kids around the ages of 7-12. It will be an event that they will remember. And it will impact how they see sports and life from this point on."

The more I think back on the discussion, the more I believe that most sports organizations did the right thing in postponing their activities. Those days were needed to reflect and be with family.

The tragedy was a defining moment for us all, not just the sports world. I hope that we all can be prepared in some small way for the next crisis we will one day face.

A coach has his playbook and has prepared a list of plays for any type of situation. Likewise, a sports organization needs a crisis playbook to prepare for any eventuality. Without one, you have no plan. Without a plan, you don't know where you are going or if you are doing the right thing in a time of stress when all eyes are upon your organization.

Andy McGowan (ajmcscrapper@aol.com) is the former vice president of communications for the NHL's Washington Capitals and teaches sports communications at UMass Amherst.

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