13 Lessons About Event Communications From the Boston Marathon Bombing

At P.C.M.A.'s Convening Leaders conference, the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association discussed how it managed to conduct its annual meeting in Boston just two days after the bombing.

By Mitra Sorrells January 23, 2014, 7:00 AM EST

Members of the panel, from left to right: moderator Tyra Hilliard, associate professor at the University of Alabama; Shawn Bryant, director of meetings for the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association; Rob Noonan, chief of public safety for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority; Bill Prentice, C.E.O. of the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association; and Katie Hauser, director of publications and digital communications for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Photo: Jacob Slaton Photography

When two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last April, Shawn Bryant and six of his colleagues were a block away at the Hynes Convention Center preparing for their association’s annual meeting, which was to open two days later. The tragedy created a crash course in crisis communications for Bryant, director of meetings for the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association. Last week Bryant and the association’s C.E.O., Bill Prentice, returned to the convention center to speak at the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders conference to share what they learned and how they succeeded in opening their meeting on schedule with only a minimal reduction in attendance. Joining them on the panel were Rob Noonan, chief of public safety for the convention center, and Katie Hauser, the facility’s director of publications and digital communications.

Here’s what they learned from the experience:

1. Create a plan
“The most important thing is the communication,“ Bryant says. “When you are coming up with your plan, don’t worry if you don’t have all of the answers. Anything that you have a plan for is better than not having a plan at all.”

2. Get everyone on board ahead of time
“Make sure that crisis management plan is vetted and approved by everyone that has a decision in your organization,” Prentice says. “So when it comes time to implement that plan, there is no second-guessing.”

3. Consider expectations for staff on site
“I made the decision they were adults, and if they were scared and wanted to try to leave the city, they were free to go,“ Bryant says. “We set up a chain of communication and everyone had to check in every hour until they reached one of us.”

4. Understand the venue’s crisis plan
“Figure out what information the venue can provide regarding emergency plans and contacts,” Noonan says. “These should be easy questions the venue can answer.”

5. Maintain communication with your home office
Staff in the association’s Washington headquarters were fielding calls from attendees and board members wondering if they should proceed with plans to travel to Boston, so it was critical to ensure they had accurate information. “I was getting calls from people saying the Sheraton had been locked down and everyone is out of there, which [wasn't true]. It became a battle of misinformation that was spiraling out of control,” Bryant says.

6. Keep calm
“Take a breath. Think about what your first communication is going to be out to your attendees, because they are going to read that very intently, and the tone of that is going to set the stage for what happens going forward,” Prentice says. “Don’t guess; don’t make assumptions. Tell people what you know, and for all the things they would want to know that you don’t have answers for yet, at least let them know you are going to find those answers and get those answers out to them as soon as possible.” In this case, the association began by confirming with authorities that it was safe for attendees to come to Boston and that the meeting would not interfere with the police investigation. When the meeting started on Wednesday, the city was still on alert as authorities searched for the suspects, so Prentice says he and his staff were conscious of communicating a sense of calm through their words and body language.

7. Don’t rush to judgment
“If I made a decision on whether or not we were going to have that meeting off the communications I received in the first four hours, we would have cancelled that meeting,” Prentice says. “Thank goodness I didn’t make that knee-jerk reaction.”

8. Communicate frequently
“We decided to communicate every hour on the hour to all our attendees, through a push email and on our Web site and through our Twitter and Facebook feeds, to just keep them posted, even if we had nothing new to say,” Prentice says. “At least they knew that we were working on it, and we were invested in making sure if this meeting proceeded, we had done our work to make sure it was safe.”

9. Use social media effectively
Establish your event’s hashtag ahead of time on your Web site and in registration materials, so it can be used to communicate with attendees before they arrive on site. “We [tweeted] out messages and even videos letting people know what kinds of bags checks we would have,” Hauser says. “We had maps about what entrances were open, what was closed. We wanted people to know when they were in our buildings, they were as safe as anywhere in the country.” She also says it's helpful to engage other individuals and organizations that have broad social networks. “We have a relationship with local media and with the mayor’s office. I knew if I tweeted to them and said ‘can you retweet this, you have more followers than I do,’ the message would go wider than if I was just blasting it out myself.”

10. Provide signage on site
“I was surprised at the number of people that were not getting our emails. One of the things I wish we would have done was posted some signage in the hotels so as they came down for breakfast and such they were seeing something that said, ‘Please check our Web site,’” Bryant says.

11. Make sure your event Web site can be easily updated
“If you don’t have a content management system in place, and you are working remotely, you could be in a jam,” Hauser says. Determine in advance who has access to update the site and how to put emergency notifications at the top of the home page.

12. Determine how to handle no-shows
Not everyone opted to make the trip to Boston. For anyone who preregistered but did not attend, the association is offering free registration to this year’s meeting.

13. Acknowledge the tragedy
“The day after the bombing, [authorities] created the One Fund Boston. We had a collection throughout our meeting and kept reminding people that the association would match any donations made by attendees,” Prentice says. “And we reminded them that them being there was what the city of Boston wanted. Being here wasn’t a hindrance: it was a help to the community of Boston, and that really resonated with our attendees.”

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