Behind the Headlines With Scott Peacock
Scott Peacock, public relations manager at Visit North Carolina, discusses how he led the state’s tourism marketing during a summer marred by several shark incidents. He shares his thoughts on crisis communication and the keys to recovery.
What do you think the most important steps in crisis management are?
Having a well-written plan and understanding it before you get to the crisis is paramount.
Last summer was my first shark rodeo. I had just come into this position in February of last year, and I was new to the entire state of North Carolina. I had never dealt with beaches, nevermind sharks, before.
The plan was in place before I got here, but we tweaked it through the lessons we learned. I was fortunate that a really good network was in place.
How closely did you stick to the crisis communication plan in place?
We stuck to our plan as far as understanding our channels and communication tools. But we didn’t completely stick to it because we had never had to deal with this many crises before.
This time was different because it was at a magnitude and level that we hadn’t seen before.
How did the crisis begin?
It started with one bite. We knew the media was going to over-sensationalize it and use the word “attack.” But to be an attack, the shark had to be seeking out a human being and viciously biting them.
More often than not, the sharks are just coming into contact with humans. They’re like toddlers – bite once and move on.
So it started with one bite and evolved from there into a lot of bites or potential bites. We couldn’t confirm some of them because some animals have a similar bite profile to a shark.
What did you do to combat the media’s treatment of the story?
It was primarily how we communicated to the general public. Making sure we were using the right word when talking about the incident. We did reach out through email and social media to work with the media to change their wording.
We also did a lot of work with scientists to get the most correct hypotheses and assumptions out there, but at the end of the day, there’s not a whole lot we can do to get the right message out there.
You have to identify the angle the media is taking as opposed to fighting against it. In this case, most credible journalists were talking about how the incidents might affect tourism.
Tourism wasn’t actually down. If people are going to go, but not going into the water, they’re going to be spending more money and making a larger tourism impact. That gave us the chance to take an educational standpoint.
How did you combat this crisis on your owned channels?
We created content on beach safety and covered everything from sunburns to how to prevent shark and jellyfish encounters.
We covered what we needed on shark safety, but it wasn’t the focal point of the content. It was a way to be helpful without drawing more attention to the issue.
We also created a map of the lifeguarded beaches up and down the coastline.
What are the keys to successful crisis response?
Fact finding and research – how quickly are you able to and how good of data are you able to gather.
Also, a solid first response and statement sets the tone for what the general audience and the media can expect from you moving forward. It gives them peace of mind, and that’s everything to us. That could be the difference between canceling their trip and coming down to see us.
Shark attacks have ingrained themselves in our culture, though they are extremely rare. How does that impact how you handle the crisis before and as it happens?
We have to work against the ingrained fear that people have because of movies like “Jaws” and events like Shark Week on Discovery. Not only was this an unprecedented amount of incidents in a close period, but we also had to deal with the anniversary of “Jaws” and Shark Week at the same time.
The only way we can fight that is with facts. We needed to let people know how rare the situation was and that it was a massive anomaly. You’re actually more likely to get struck by lightning than bit by a shark.
Can organizations ever fully recover from crises?
You can fully recover, but it comes down to transparency, honesty and truth. You can’t have one of those things without the other.
Bad things happen to good organizations, but it’s those three key areas and how you utilize those three things that determine whether you will make or break and whether you will recover.
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