Monday, September 30, 2013

Tragedy Strikes Ottawa

Yesterday was a tragic day in the city of Ottawa. During the regular morning commute in the South-West part of the region, at 8:48AM, an OC Transpo city bus barreled through the guard rail at a crossing and collided with a VIARail passenger train. Six people have been confirmed among the fatalities, while there are still many injured victims being treated at local hospitals. 

As both a university student and resident of Ottawa myself, the news of the accident hit very close to home. People from all walks of life take public transit everyday in order to arrive at their destinations - a convenient way to travel in a city congested with vehicular traffic. While the results of this event are both horrifying and unfathomable, I couldn’t help but wonder how OC Transpo, as a company, would respond to this crisis. How would this affect their reputation? How would this affect their sales? While I can safely speculate that the public relations team working for OC Transpo has their hands full for the time being, the public relations and social media role for many prominent figures in the community and industry have come to a head as well.
Emergency dispatchers weren’t the only ones quick to respond to the traumatic event. Many local and national politicians, or the people who work for them, were jumping onto social media websites (such as Twitter) to express their condolences. Mayor Jim Watson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were among the first to make announcements publicly online, about 45 minutes after tragedy struck. 
While crises typically occur unexpectedly, it is not an excuse for a professional within the industry to be unprepared. A critical aspect of public relations and communications within a company or an organization is to develop a crisis management plan before disasters occur. Public relations professionals must expect the unexpected, and they do this by implementing methods to create plans. The “R.A.C.E. Method” is commonly used in the world of public relations in order to develop strategies and plans that will get messages across clearly and effectively. 
The R.A.C.E. Method implements the use of research, analysis, communication, and evaluation. During the research process, one must ask what the problem is, what one is trying to achieve, what is currently going on, and what the current perception of a situation is. Tools such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, audits, stats, and media monitoring are commonly used in order to answer these questions. Secondly, an analysis of this data is done. One defines objectives, identifies target audiences, and develops key messages. During the communication process, a strategy must be developed (as well as a method to measure the effectiveness of this strategy). A budget must be implemented as well. Finally, when it comes to evaluation, a PR team must look back on their communication plan in order to develop it further and better it, if possible. 
It does seem, however, that the city of Ottawa was well prepared for this kind of emergency situation (at least, that’s what the city is implying). In my opinion, I believe that the PR reps for local and national politicians are doing a very good job given the current situation at hand. Assuming they already had a crisis management plan in place, the PR reps have responded to the needs of citizens by efficiently and effectively making public announcements for their clients in relation to the events. Hopefully this excellent work ethic continues as news reports and new information about the case keeps popping up over the next few weeks. As stressful as these traumatic situations are, if public relations professionals have a crisis communications plan set up and ready to go before tragedy strikes, they will be in for a much smoother ride indeed.

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