Thanks to my awesome summer intern Sydney, I now have transcripts of the podcasts I’ve been interviewed for. Here’s a transcript of the podcast “Business Resilience Decoded,” in which I spoke about the value of good crisis communications in libraries.
Narrator: Welcome to Business Resilience Decoded. From Disaster Recovery Journal and Asfalis Business Resilience. Now, here’s your host, Vanessa Vaughn.
Vanessa Vaughn: Welcome to Business Resilience Decoded. I am your host, Vanessa Vaughn, the founder and resilience officer of Asfalis Advisors. We have a great guest lined up for you today, speaking on the topic of crisis communications for public libraries. So let’s jump right in and meet our guest, Cordelia Anderson. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Cordelia Anderson: Thank you for having me.
Vanessa: Cordelia is the CEO of Cordelia Anderson Consulting. And I just want you to start us off with what our listeners can learn about you and how you got into the world of crisis communications.
Cordelia: Sure! Well, I’ve got a master’s degree in English literature, so I never imagined myself being in the world of crisis communications, but I ended up working in public relations and marketing for twenty years, so crisis communications is something that I learned on the job over those two decades.
Early in my career I observed other people doing crisis communications, because I was a younger person and still learning the industry. I even worked for a consultant really early on who trained executives on how to handle crisis communications, which was really interesting and good experience.
But I would say my first experience as a leader doing crisis communications came when I was Director of Marketing and Communications for a small Pre-K through 8th grade private school. This was in 2006/2007 when sadly, at that time (and even more so today), concerns over school shootings were becoming more common. It was a montessori-inspired school, which meant it had a very open campus, so there was a lot of concern on the part of the parents and teachers. So I took it upon myself to create a campus-wide crisis plan and we ran things like lockdown drills and stuff like that.
Then, in 2008, I became Director of Marketing and Communications for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, which is a huge library system. At the time, we had twenty-four locations open to the public seven days a week, and we had two large facilities within the urban core of the city, one of those serving youth ages 0-18. So, I remember walking into that youth facility one day with my own children and realizing, “Oh my gosh, if anything happens here, it is on me.” That was a sobering moment and also really a kick-start to my interest in crisis communications and planning.
Vanessa: Wow! Twenty-four locations at a public library… that seems like a lot of people, lots of community members, lots of stakeholders.
Vanessa: Let’s go a little bit deeper into that. What is the scope of crisis communications specifically for public libraries? Like what’s your focus? Who would your stakeholders be? And then understanding that you also have the public… how does all that work?
Cordelia: Yeah, it’s not a simple process, but you start with baby steps. I think the first thing everyone thinks about with a large public institution like that, and kind of the first thing I thought about, was really safety and security incidents. That absolutely is a top priority to be prepared for. Those kinds of things… They happen very quickly, and you have to be prepared, and there’s a lot at stake.
I find often it’s the communications professionals who are the ones that help others in the organization really see the value of having the crisis response plan. You really need to have that in place first before you develop a crisis communications plan because of course that is supposed to feed off of the crisis response plan.
But what I didn’t know then, back in 2008, [before] I got my accreditation in public relations from PRSA, is that there are actually three types of crises and all of these are in scope for public libraries. One is your immediate crisis, and then you have your emerging and sustained crises. An immediate crisis includes your security incidents, like we talked about before, and those are the ones that you’ve got to practice for because they have, as I said, very little lead time and very high stakes. But the other two are really important to learn about too, and I think a lot of times people aren’t really aware of the other two until they’ve happened to them.
An emerging crisis is really something that’s brewing, something that you’re aware of that hasn’t happened yet, but could affect your organization in a really profound way. It could affect your reputation as an organization. One example of that that really applies to libraries is data retention. Libraries have a huge amount of customer data, and if that is vulnerable to hacking or cyberattack, that could be an example of an emerging crisis.
A more common one that we don’t always think of in this way is weather incidents. I’m here in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it’s snowing right now and I know my friends at the library are working behind the scenes to manage that. There’s a whole process for when you have a hurricane or a large winter storm on determining the safety of customers and staff… whether you’re going to open or close… and communicating that.
That would be an emerging crisis, and then a sustained crisis is really the one that you don’t think about it all. Those are long-term issues that can impact your reputation, and they are the hardest because they require long-term work. And oftentimes, you’re rebuilding an organization’s reputation when there are [long-term issues] happening because they are sustained and they can last anywhere from months to years.
You can also have the other two types of crises on top of that, and then you get a situation where you’re managing several crises at once. I remember someone once saying to me, “Be prepared to be up to three or four crises deep at one moment.” I remember when that first happened to me I thought, “Oh, this is what they were talking about.” To give you a specific example, when I was at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library we had a sustained budget crisis. [When the impacts of the 2008 recession] hit Charlotte a couple years later, we had a severe public funding crisis that resulted in layoffs and library closures as well as a major public outcry because our community really loved the library.
The impacts of that lasted for several years, and we were under really intense scrutiny during that whole time because people really cared about the library. But just because that was happening didn’t mean that we didn’t also have things like safety and security incidents… weather incidents, like we’ve talked about, and then on top of that we had investigative reporters submitting public records requests because they were looking for stories because we were top-of-mind in the community. All of these things we had to be monitoring… managing… they were all potential risks and they all needed communications.
So, it’s really important that we were on top of that all the time and constantly thinking with a crisis communications mindset. Fortunately for us, all these ended very positively and in big part that was because everyone understood the importance of staying on top of these potential crises, and more importantly, keeping [the communications department] in the room where the decisions were being made. That is so critical, and that set us up in a good place for when later even bigger things happened. Like when the Democratic National Convention came to Charlotte in 2012, and The Daily Show filmed out of one of our facilities … and then in 2015, President Barack Obama came and conducted a town hall in one of our libraries. So, again, because we had all that practice through all those other sustained and emerging crises, we were that much more prepared when we had these incredibly huge events that were impacting our organization.
Vanessa: So, what about different events as it relates to nonprofits or organizations that you all may work with it that either donate [to you], or that you have some big partnerships with? Does that also play a role from a crisis communications standpoint?
Cordelia: Oh, absolutely. Because when it comes to things like donors, partners, etc., reputation is key. We had a crisis communications plan. We also had a communications plan, and one of the goals in that communications plan was for the community to view us as good stewards of community resources, and also to view us as a good investment of their dollars, of their time, of their talent and of their partnerships. In other words, if we didn’t have a good reputation, people wouldn’t want to give us their donations… They wouldn’t want to partner with us.
We were constantly very focused on building up that reputation, especially after that funding crisis which created some confusion and mixed feelings in the community. When you’re closing branches, nobody wants to see their neighborhood branch close or see their friendly neighborhood librarian lose their job. So even after we rebuilt from that and were able to hire back a lot of people and re-expand our hours, we knew we had work to do to rebuild our reputation.
It was really lovely, because in 2013 we launched a foundation that began raising private funds for the library, which we hadn’t had before. The community, the groundswell of the community’s support around that foundation, and then building over the five years since then, has been just wonderful to see. It really does show the value of reputation management and good crisis communications planning.
Vanessa: So then, what are some of the challenges that you see libraries face?
Cordelia: I just spoke to a big library marketing conference in St. Louis last month, and we all face a lot of the same challenges. I say “we,” because even though I don’t work for a library anymore, I’m still very committed to public libraries as an industry. One of the challenges is that libraries like to focus on the positive. They don’t often want to think about these issues. Libraries have been riding a wave of community goodwill for a century at least, so they don’t always want to think about it. But one emerging crisis for the library industry is really the relevancy question.
Unfortunately, if you go to a cocktail party and you say “I work for a library,” people will often say, “Do we really need libraries anymore? I just use Google. I have my Kindle.” And we have to be able to answer that question in a real and meaningful way, and that is something that libraries are really struggling with.
Libraries, similar to nonprofits and smaller government entities, are also often under-resourced in their communications departments, so they don’t have a lot of time, staff, or money to devote to things like crisis communications and reputation management. They tend to be stuck in tactical mode, like, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to promote this program or service,” and they’re not necessarily stepping back and looking at the big picture in the way that they would like to.
The other thing with crisis communications is that you don’t have a crisis happening every day, so you get out of practice. So, unless you are revisiting [your plan], unless you’re drilling and practicing on a semi-regular basis, you can really be caught off-guard. The main thing I mentioned earlier is that [PR needs to be] at the [leadership] table. Different libraries are structured in different ways, and in many instances, the head communications officer is not part of the top director level of the library, so they’re not always at the table when decisions are being made, and that can be really challenging.
Vanessa: Yeah, you know it’s interesting, I remember growing up when my mother took me to the library every Saturday. I would read books and I knew how to navigate a library, and today I’ve met a lot of young people that don’t know how to navigate that world… They don’t know what to do when they step inside of the building because they use Google for everything. So, I can imagine the importance of how technology has changed the way that we hold a book and how tough it may be to re-establish, to your point, the value of why a library is so critical.
Cordelia: Yeah, absolutely. And it takes, first of all, being willing to acknowledge that this [relevancy issue] is an emerging crisis. And putting the resources and energy into how you respond to that now, not waiting until it becomes a funding crisis or a bigger issue. We faced the relevancy issue [at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in 2010] when we had our big funding crisis. I think people viewed our library system as very popular but not necessarily critical to the community.
The public outcry certainly helped re-establish that we were very critical to the community. But we also realized that we had to re-position ourselves as an educational institution and not just a place for recreation. [We had been] very focused on events being a reason to come to the library, and we had to re-remind ourselves and the community that we were so much more than that… that we were critical… that we were part of the life system of the community… that we were educational support… [workforce development …] early literacy. And we actually worked to include that messaging for years and years and years, and were able to watch as attitudes really did shift. That included the attitudes of our funders, which really helped sustain the organization.
Vanessa: How did you strategically manage the multiple stakeholders that you had? From the community, to the donor’s, to the public sector as well as your partners? And then secondly, what advice or recommendations do you have for others who may be in your same position with some of those challenges that you mentioned? What can you provide them to give them some feedback on what they can do differently or what they can think about to help them in their organization?
Cordelia: Well first on the stakeholder question, when we went through that funding crisis, a lot of it was figuring out exactly what was happening and how to respond, and one of the things we did was map out our audiences. A lot of times people think, “Oh, you’ve got your internal audience and your external audience and that’s it.” But we realized that we had three audiences. We had internal, external, and then funding stakeholders.
I think that that is a really important distinction to make because your messaging is going to be different for each of those audiences. One of the things that was really helpful for our staff, [who were] incredibly stressed out during this time, was to show them that the pressure that they were feeling was real. They were stuck in the middle between the external audience, who was demanding more libraries, and the funding stakeholders, who had reduced our funding, which means they were delivering less library to the community.
Seeing how those audiences were positioned in relationship with each other was incredibly helpful for us in developing strategies, because we had to communicate to our internal audience, our staff, our board, or our volunteers what to say to those external audiences when they basically were complaining (i.e., “Hey, why are you not open as many hours?” or “Why did you close my branch?”). Then we also had to shift our messaging to those funding stakeholders because … we hadn’t been doing a good job of explaining why we were so essential and critical to the community.
[In terms of identifying different audiences and stakeholders], we literally mapped those out. We had a communications plan where we listed every single segment under each of those categories [internal, external and funding stakeholder].
[In terms of communicating with different audiences and stakeholders during a crisis], we went so far as to create templates and checklists, first in Word and then in Basecamp (which is a project management software), so any time we would have a crisis, we had it all mapped out already. And it was just a matter of going through, [creating the message], and assigning and accomplishing tasks so that we wouldn’t forget [any audiences]. Making sure you don’t leave any audiences out is really important, so we made sure we did that. It’s really valuable to know who those audiences are, and then to keep [your plan] accessible and top-of-mind, so you can instantly respond when you need to.
So, that’s a lot! And then for your second question, advice for people who are tasked with communicating on behalf of the library… I’ve said it a couple times, I’ll say it one more time… You really have to advocate to have communications at the table when decisions are made. You know, there’s an old saying, and I’m probably saying it wrong, but “you can’t communicate yourself out of a crisis that you operated yourself into.” And that is absolutely true. There are so many crises that you can actually avoid happening at all if you have your PR or communications person at the table.
And then the other really important thing would be to make sure that your organization has a crisis response plan. As I mentioned before, when I was at that school, we didn’t have one and I created one because I was concerned about the safety of the campus. But then when I was studying for my accreditation, there was an experienced leader who was speaking to us who handled communications for a nuclear power plant and she said, “Make sure your organization has a crisis response plan, but don’t let them put you in charge of it.” And that was a real lesson for me of, “Okay, I need to work with the people who are in charge of this to make sure they know what the plan is, but then I need to then advocate for why we need that communications plan on top of it.”
So, that’s really important. If your organization doesn’t know what it’s doing, you can communicate wonderfully. But if what you’re communicating is a mess, that’s not good. I was fortunate to work with people who really saw the value of having that kind of plan. It was a relief to me knowing that we knew what we were going to do if something happened.
Vanessa: Right, because you don’t want to make it up in the middle of it.
Cordelia: No, you don’t. And honestly, you can’t plan for everything, so you still end up making up some of it. But that’s why it’s always good to have a strong foundation of the basics, and then you customize it to your different situation. I know one time we had a reputation crisis [related to our handling of] a mother breastfeeding in the library. That’s not something I would have ever built into my communications plan, but having that foundation there allowed me to then customize it for that situation and learn and grow from that experience.
Vanessa: That’s interesting. So, you mentioned continuity of operations planning and most of our subscribers have an extensive background in business continuity. Can you help us, and just kind of paint the picture on how you see the intersection of crisis communications and business continuity or continuity of operations?
Cordelia: Yeah, definitely. And communications is such a critical part because you can have a wonderful continuity of operations plan, but if you can’t communicate about it, it’s not going to function the way it’s supposed to. If you can’t communicate about your continuity plan, you might as well not have a plan in a sense, because nobody knows what they’re supposed to be doing. So, it’s very important to have your communications people part of that continuity plan and advising you on how to communicate each step.
I remember way back in the day we started with a flu pandemic plan back when that was really hot in libraries. Everybody was like, “Oh no! Swine flu! We need to have a flu pandemic plan.” And that was our only plan. We didn’t have a plan for anything else, just flu. Then later, we adapted that into our larger continuity of operations plan. But even when it was just a flu plan, we understood the need for communications along the way.
So, you’ve got to have that, and you’ve got to get everyone in the habit of telling communications people first if there is an issue or a potential issue. So, if you think you’re going to have to use your continuity of operations plan or there’s something coming down the pipeline that you’re concerned about, make sure your communications people know about it, and they’re some of the first people that you tell, because they’re going to need to be prepared. Because again, if you’re going to navigate through whatever issue this is with your reputation [in jeopardy], you need your communications people on top of it.
I can actually give you a very specific example. In 2016, Charlotte had a very sad moment where we had [a police-officer-involved shooting], and we had riots in the city of Charlotte. Peaceful protests that turned violent. Half of our leadership team was on the other side of the country visiting libraries in Seattle, Washington and I was one of the few directors who was here. Myself and our HR director and some of our associate directors, and we had to step up and run the organization with half our leadership gone. That really was a continuity of operations situation – our leadership was out-of-pocket, we were only two-three blocks away from where things were happening, and at one point a person was tragically shot and killed just two blocks away from our facilities [after hours]. So we had a really big responsibility to keep our employees and customers safe, and that is where our continuity of operations plan was really valuable. Communication was so important – making sure employees were communicating with us about what was happening in their locations, deciding when to be open because the community needed us, but also when safety became a big enough concern that we needed to close and send our employees and our customers home.
That was a really important example of where Communications worked seamlessly with HR, with Facilities, and we did that with a lot of leadership [in Seattle] who were very supportive, but weren’t able to be there to help us in the day-to-day.
Vanessa: Yes, I remember that, I was actually in Charlotte when that happened, and it’s just another example of really not knowing how external factors can impact your organization, your workforce, and those who walk in and out of your doors every day.
Do you have any published materials and or any places where our listeners can find you online?
Cordelia: Yes, I have materials, and all of those are available at my website which is http://www.cordeliaandersonapr.com. I’m adding new continent there all the time, like I recently wrote a blog post about doing good communications during weather incidents, which we talked about a little bit here, and then of course I’m on Facebook under Cordelia Anderson Consulting and on Twitter at @cordeliaba and then of course on LinkedIn.
Vanessa: I know you also have a newsletter, how can our listeners get your newsletter ?
Cordelia: Sure, they can subscribe from my website.