Fire! Direct engagement during a Canadian crisis

How virtual town halls helped Alberta (Canada) deliver critical information to evacuees of Fort McMurray, by EuroComm 2017 speaker Carl Mavromichalis.

For those of you with experience with managing communications through a crisis, you know how vital it is to properly prepare. Crises can create an immense vacuum for information, particularly when the general public is concerned. Reaching displaced, distressed populations becomes, at the same time, critical and difficult.

Premier and Prime Minister Touring Destruction . Pic courtesy of the Government of Alberta

This scenario played out in May, 2015 in Canada as a a wildfire raged through Northern Alberta and the Fort McMurray area forcing the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people. The fire destroyed 2,500 structures in the city, including entire neighbourhoods, and has the distinction of being the largest natural disaster in Canadian history. At its peak, the wildfire covered 590,000 hectares of land, which is nearly four times the size of London and all of the boroughs.

Government of Alberta needed a way to communicate directly with evacuees to keep them up to date on the latest information, condition of their neighborhoods, distribution of financial assistance, predictions for when they could return to their homes and what to expect once they were able to return, among many other things. Many evacuees had dispersed across the country, from the west coast to the east. Yet they were expecting the Government to keep them up to date with critical updates.

Abandoned vehicles along Highway 63. Pic courtesy of the Government of Alberta

The government recognized this immensely challenging situation and created a crisis response channel that allowed the Premier and Ministers to speak directly to this dispersed audience using the Virtual Town Hall (VTH). VTHs have rarely made an appearance on this side of the Atlantic, so let me take a brief moment to outline what it is and how it works. This technology turns the humble telephone into a radio show starring your organizations leaders and special guests. What makes the system unique is that it pushes phone calls into the phone network, making your audience’s phones ring. After hearing a brief recorded message, the participant is connected to the event and can hear the speakers live. All participants are on mute, but they can press a button to have their question screened and placed into a cue to ask it live. They can also be active by responding to polling questions using their keypads.

As part of their emergency response, the government decided to place all hands on deck for the events. Representatives from all departments and agencies responsible for various aspects of the government’s actions – approximately 15 individuals – were on the phone ready to answer questions directly from evacuees. Those agencies included Alberta Wildfire (firefighters), the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (response coordination), as well as ministries responsible for housing, emergency funds distribution and health agencies. A number of partners were at the table as well. The Red Cross was distributing funds to evacuees, as well as assisting the government with emergency fund distribution. The Insurance Bureau of Canada, the industry association for insurers, were also on the calls to help people understand their home insurance policies.

“We set up these telephone town halls in order to provide evacuees with as much information as we could in an unfiltered way.” – MUNICIPAL AFFAIRS MINISTER DANIELLE LARIVEE

Destroyed homes and vehicles. Pic courtesy of the Government of Alberta

The government ran four events each week (except for a holiday), and then two events leading up to the voluntary re- entry in the first week of June, for a total of 17 90-minute events in five weeks. It became clear immediately after the first event that the use of this technology in this situation was incredibly effective. Just for some perspective, on a normal event, there may be 30-40 pressing their button to ask a question. On the first wildfire VTH, 1,000 people did so. And until that point, the largest group of online audio streamers was well under 50 – on the first event, there were 3,333 participants listening to the online audio stream. 

What made a big impact on me was the ability of the government to deliver the most up-to-date information directly into the phones of evacuees, which corrected misinformation and rumours, and ensured evacuees had the most reliable information available – anywhere. Not event the media would have had more current information. The government did use media relations extensively, but their direct engagement strategy to evacuees did not rely on media, advertising or any other one-way communication. Their priority was to answer questions of those people impacted by the disaster.

And when all was said and done, the government had fielded approximately 35 questions per event, for a total of over 500. Over 161,000 people had participated over the series of events. And the government was recently recognized with a Gold Award for its emergency response by a Canadian public administration organization.

In Canada, in a declared state of emergency, the calling regulations can be suspended and the government entity is free to call out with no time or calling restrictions. In the UK and Europe, it is possible to temporarily suspend privacy and calling regulations with a Ministerial order. The UK’s rules are clear and stringent when it comes to marketing calls. What is less clear, however, is whether or not public engagement for non-marketing purposes is permitted, and, if so, under which regulations.

I am optimistic that legislators and regulators will see the importance of being able to connect with citizens affected by disasters and that Virtual Town Halls will be able to help organizations in the UK and Europe better engage with their stakeholders in a similar way during crises. What has driven a lot of the regulations around ‘nuisance’ or unwanted automated calls on both sides of the Atlantic is their irrelevance to the audience. If the Fort McMurray situation is any indication, citizens would be relieved and even thankful for critical information during a crisis – and it would be anything but irrelevant.

Posted in Crisis and change, EMENA Regional news, EuroComm conference.