Bad News Travels Fast: Media Management during a Disaster

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Written by Leann Rich, originally published January 21, 2014

Water damage inside the Arms Family Museum in Youngstown, Ohio.
Water damage inside the Arms Family Museum in Youngstown, Ohio.

Disaster struck my organization a few days into the New Year. A pipe on the second floor of The Arms Family Museum (a 108-year-old historic house) broke during the night. This broken pipe caused minor damage on the second floor and extensive damage in the first floor dining room and the boiler room in the basement directly below. We knew the news would be picked up by local media, so we put together a plan to manage information.

Here are some tips from our recent experience:

  1. Inform the organization’s staff and board.
    Have one point of contact, but everyone in the organization should have all the related information. We detailed what happened, what our plans are for restoration and gave what information we could on a timeline for reopening.
  2. Be prepared when you hit “send” on the press release email.
    Bad news travels much faster than good news – I was getting calls from the press inside of five minutes.
  3. Be upfront with the media, and don’t hide any information.
    We invited the news outlets to take pictures and video inside the museum and had the Executive Director available for interviews.
  4. Look for a learning opportunity.
    We will use the restoration project as a way to educate the public on historic preservation.
  5. Don’t underestimate your community.
    The public responded with understanding and a willingness to help. Consider setting up a “donate now” button on your website and share as much information as possible.

Fortunately for us, the damage occurred while the museum was already scheduled to be closed. The timing gave us a few days of preparation before we had to alert the press. However, most disasters are not so convenient. In addition to your disaster preparedness plan, draft a communications plan so you are ready when bad news happens.

What are you experiences with media management during a disaster?
Share your story in the comments section.

Leann Rich is a Region 4 representative of the Ohio Local History Alliance and Manager of Education & External Relations for Mahoning Valley Historical Society in Youngstown, Ohio.