The Well-Provisioned War Room And Why You Need One

When a crisis erupts, the communications team goes to ground, huddling in the "war room," the "command center." From this hub, PR leadership can call the shots, watching as the story unfolds and adjusting communications strategy moment to moment.

The modern war room is thoughtfully outfitted. Technology plays a role, documents are a must, staffing is a critical factor and then there are the little things. Stock the fridge with sodas; you may be in here for a while.

So, what does the well-provisioned war room look like in real life?

At Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, it is a separate physical space, an actual room set aside for no other purpose than to serve as "communications central" in times of crisis. It's an interior room with no windows, safe from the unpredictable weather that sometimes plagues the area. The room boasts enhanced security and fire protection, with dedicated phone and Internet connections separate from the main PBX. There's a conference table, white boards and a video conferencing unit.

Even with all these upscale assets, though, Communications Manager Janeen Driscoll says the most valuable object in the room comes in notebook format. It's the company crisis- communication plan, which contains all the policies, scenarios and other information related to damage control. "In a crisis situation, no matter how many times you've been through it, you still need a physical reminder to keep you on track," Driscoll says.

At Cingular Wireless, Clay Owen, senior director of media relations, recently installed a new piece of war room apparatus: PRNewswire's MediaRoom software. This password-protected interface makes fast-breaking information readily available online. It allows users to upload text, images and other files; to change section titles; and to update or edit content with online tools.

Even with such supporting technology, Owen says, the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes served as a potent reminder that his most important asset in times of crisis walks on two legs. While some PR staffers gathered at headquarters, others stayed on the front lines, especially at the network operations center, whose performance would determine the severity of the crisis.

"[The PR staffers] were our primary sources of information. They had all the people right there who could tell us what we needed to know," he says. "Then we were able here at headquarters to take that information and use it to talk to reporters."

One challenge in all of this is the fact that a crisis can explode anywhere. A war room at West Coast headquarters won't always be ready to respond to a Midwest crisis. What many PR operators have learned to do, therefore, is to have not a war room, but rather a war-room "model" that can be rolled out at a moment's notice.

Albert Lopez got to try out that concept when Hurricane Katrina started blowing Harrah's casino boats literally out of the water. As corporate director of strategic communications, he moved to set up a communications command post not at HQ in Las Vegas, but rather at Central Region headquarters in Memphis.

Following an existing plan, facilities managers created the crisis center almost on the fly, running in extra phone lines, and carting in laptops, printers and fax machines.

Many are taking that notion a step further. "It is not quite the old-fashioned war room it used to be. It is more 'virtual' now," says Kevin Hall, vice president of the technology division at PR firm Charles Ryan Associates.

"A crisis can happen at nighttime or when folks are traveling, and we are using technology to deal with that," he adds. "The old war room had the three-ring binder with the crisis plan. Today, that action plan is all in a project-management system on the intranet, so that when a crisis happens, you just push a few buttons and everyone gets assigned their tasks."

At Minneapolis PR firm Exponent, Director of Public Affairs Bob Gagne likewise straddles the line between people and technology. There's some technology you have to have, he says, including a "dark site" on the Web, ready to come to life in the event of a crisis to keep information flowing to both internal and external audiences.

Then there's the human touch. Gagne especially wants to see a HR person in the war room to help the communicators stay sane. "If something dreadful were to happen, especially involving loss of life, certainly HR needs to have access to staff and to the people involved in handling that," he explains. "They are going to be under a lot of pressure, and you don't want them falling apart in the middle of everything."

Gagne also wants a direct line to people on the ground. If the rank-and-file cannot actually be present in the room, at least their input ought to be prominent. "There are people in the war room who fly at 30,000 feet, but then there are so many people out there who talk to the customers every day," Gagne says. "Their voices need to be heard."

Bottom line, a war room ought to have anything that will enhance communications: dedicated phone lines, redundant Internet access, wireless connectivity, software that tracks evolving news coverage, and media feeds that reflect ongoing reporting.

At the same time, though, the room must have a proper emphasis on the human factor. Have the right decision-makers present. Make available a clear chain of command so that everyone knows his or her place. Help ensure access to rank-and-file input, which can and should help steer media strategies.

Here's one thing you don't need: consultants or at least not too many of them. A crisis often demands fast action, Gagne says, and sometimes the presence of consultants only muddies the water: "We spin our wheels too much, and we don't get down to understanding our situation."

Contacts: Janeen Driscoll, 910.235.8710, [email protected]; Bob Gagne, 888.738.2332, [email protected]; Kevin Hall, 877.342.0161, [email protected]; Albert Lopez, 702.575.5955, [email protected]; Clay Owen, 404.236.6125, [email protected]; Matt Sheppard, 877.342.0161, [email protected]

Links In The Chain

The most important asset in your war room? The people who are they had better be the right ones. At Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, Communications Manager Janeen Driscoll makes sure everyone understands the chain of command.

"Pinehurst created a crisis-communications team, a small number of key decision-makers and communications experts to craft messages, control the message and have key spokesmen available to deliver key message points," she says.

To reinforce the hierarchy, members of the crisis team possess wallet-sized laminated cards they carry with them at all times. The cards are printed with work, home and cellphone numbers for all crisis-communications team members as well as a simple flowchart showing who contacts whom.

"We at Pinehurst have over 100 managers who would be more than willing to give an opinion, and it's not that we don't value those opinions," she says. "But they all have their own jobs to do," just as PR must be left to do its job in times of crisis.