InsightsPOSTED September 1, 2016

Keep it hot, key to crisis communications

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Managing the reputation of North America’s third largest transit system (after New York and Mexico cities) is something his colleagues call a “Daily Miracle,” because of its 800 million daily boardings and daily news coverage, says Brad Ross @bradTTC, executive director, Corporate Communications at the Toronto Transit Commission.

On August 15, 2016 the Canadian Public Relations Society – Toronto #CPRSTo hosted Ross at the Rum Exchange, who shared his secret for daily crisis communications – keeping it HOT – honest, open and transparent. An approach that ironically, he recognizes, is in direct conflict with the tattoo on his left arm that reads “No comment.”

Ross – with his 30 years’ experience in communications, including eight in his current position – says a crisis does not necessarily mean an emergency, and vice versa an emergency does not necessarily mean a crisis.

While a quick Google definition check offers each as a synonym for the other, they are subtly different. A crisis is more specifically defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger,” while an emergency is “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.”

Ross offered that in saying nothing in the face of a problem leaves the scent of scandal, where an issue can quickly transition to a crisis.

A recent example included the previous week’s terrorist threat in which Ross said the TTC’s standard operating procedure is to be vigilant by telling employees, “If you see something, say something.”

And in terms of communication – this is where you see HOT (honest, open, transparent) in action.

“If we don’t own issues, others will for us…own the issue by getting out in front of it,” says Ross.

The TTC was not a target in the terrorist scare and by saying the transit system was not named, by noon the next day, the transit media angle fizzled.

“In a crisis, time is not a luxury. The next news cycle is now,” says Ross. And, in a time of crisis it can mean danger or opportunity.

Twitter is the social platform of choice for the TTC – to communicate quickly with one person or one million.

Social media is here to stay and has forever changed how we manage a crisis.”

Ross also added his understanding of the criticism and feedback of the TTC on social media is because transit users are passionate.

Still he said, Twitter is in a crisis with racist, homophobic and exploitive remarks that are unregulated. Ross hopes to see swift improvements to the platform to maintain its viability.

At the TTC, potential crisis means that communications staff is on call 24/7 and that live radio and TV updates must come from other senior communications staff or Ross himself. There are eight individuals in the corporate communications department, including internal communications.

When asked “should the CEO take media interviews?” he said there are no easy answers. Reserving him or her for bigger issues – like budgets or high profile incidents that require an organization’s leadership to be seen and heard – is important but there may be other instances, so trust your gut. (Also, read 3Qs with TTC CEO Andy Byford.)

Being nimble is a strategic decision that is part of the TTC communications team’s approach, as Ross admits traditional planning is difficult for ever-changing daily issues. There is no time to ponder things for two days when issues need to be responded to on social media in real-time.

A couple other ways TTC communications remains nimble is by reporting directly to CEO and by sitting at the decision-making table.

Parting words from Ross to his fellow communications practitioners were

“Lead where you can, respond swiftly and accurately, and always do the right thing.”

That last part is also aptly a tattoo on his right arm.

Diane Bégin @dibegin, APR, is with APEX Public Relations and ruckus digital. Her recent crisis work was on the ground in her other home province for the northern Alberta wildfire.


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