Crisis at False Creek Elementary School

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 5, I got a call from the Vancouver Police notifying me that human remains had been sent to False Creek Elementary. A slow day got a whole lot faster. The next 24 hours were dizzying from a communications perspective as the magnitude of the awful package became public and spread in the news like wildfire.

Crisis communications is never an easy thing to do. Emotions run high and organizations frequently clam up as they seek to minimize the “bad news” by ignoring it. When the news is explosive this can be a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, in such a fluid situation with little time to prepare key messaging or other communications collateral, it can be particularly challenging to provide accurate and reassuring information to the public in the heat of a media frenzy.

That day, it was the CBC that was the first to figure out there was something amiss at False Creek Elementary. Within an hour, they were joined by other cameras, and reporters began hitting the phones hard seeking comment from anyone at either the VSB or VPD. Our district management team liaised with the Vancouver Police as we attempted to sort through what we knew and more importantly what we could say. There were a lot of questions in those early hours. Since the police were taking the lead in communication around this incident, we needed to ensure we didn’t unintentionally say anything that could compromise their investigation. It was a tricky situation.

As one of my mentor Alyn Edwards once told me, “the key to successful crisis communications is convincing your audience that they are safe, that you know what you are doing and that they can trust you.”

Ensuring our messaging consistently supported these concerns was the first step. The next step was to publicly and proactively appeal for calm. We needed to demonstrate to our school communities that we had the situation under control. By this time my BlackBerry was vibrating so much I worried it might melt. My landline flashed ominous red with dozens of voice mails from media as far away as Toronto. Requests were piling up and it was going to be difficult for us to respond to everyone effectively. We decided to head down to the police briefing at 4 PM that afternoon. As I cabbed down to Cambie I answered four calls from reporters with little more than a few key messages. After remaining relatively anonymous during the police briefing, I did a live hit to CTV National News, and within moments I was suddenly in demand with every other news outlet on site.

A handful of journalists turned into a full blown scrum as a dozen cameras and microphones were shoved in my face. I said my three key messages and then prepared for an onslaught of questions I couldn’t answer. The questions kept coming and I quickly learned an important lesson in crisis management.

First, slow down, take a deep breath and know that the journalists surrounding you will wait for you to give your comment. There’s no need to rush – calm and steady will always win this race. Second, always have a story to tell. No matter how mundane or simple your story is it helps to have something to say when there’s very little information you’re able to disclose at the time. The ability to relate a story is as important in reactive crisis communications as it is in proactive positive media relations.

After a tricky scrum, I continued to field live interview requests as I headed back to the office since I had to ensure that a statement and additional information that the police had released was posted on the VSB website. Meanwhile, we sent out a message from our Chairperson to all media to provide the official stance of the Board on the issue, and ensure it was clear that all levels of the VSB were concerned and working proactively on the case.

Early the next morning, I headed down to the school with our Superintendent and other crisis team members. Our district staff worked with teachers and school administrators to prepare for the day and distributed a tip sheet for the school’s parents about discussing this serious and sad situation with their children. Meanwhile, I did the rounds outside providing live and on camera interviews with the ten journalists camped out near school grounds.

This time I came armed not just with key messages but with a good story to tell. The school community had been shocked by this awful situation, but was coming together in an amazing way. Fortunately no children had seen the hand, but the staff that had were “rock solid”. The main challenge for the school community now wasn’t so much the suspicious package but the onslaught of media attention it had provoked. 

Later that morning we posted additional information outlining how concerned parents could sensitively discuss the challenging situation with their students. This, along with my appeal to “leave our little school alone” was soon refined into a good mix of messages. By the time I headed over to do live hits at CBC Newsworld and Sun TV I had my message down to a science.

As the day wound down, so too did media interest in False Creek Elementary. News of the transfer of the case from the VPD to the Montreal Police only hastened this. By the next day, our little school was safely out of the national media spotlight, the best result for any crisis communicator.