Get the News Out—No Matter What

By Stephenie Overman Dec 1, 2004
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Global multimedia news agency and financial services company Reuters has put its disaster preparedness planning to the test twice since 2003: A power outage disrupted its London data center in October, and some of its offices were affected by the blackout that hit the northeastern United States in August 2003.

Many of Reuters’ financial services products weren’t operational during the London outage, according to the company’s New York-based Internal Communications Director Paula Harrington. “We lost data, and it affected a lot of our clients worldwide,” she says. The company’s news system, however, continued to operate.

Reuters’ experience indicates how proper planning can help keep natural disaster and human action—deliberate or unintentional—from preventing news businesses from getting the story out.

Media organizations, whether global or local, should consider the following tips shared by Reuters and other organizations when crafting disaster recovery plans with the flow of news in mind:

    • Have a backup plan. When the 2003 blackout hit, Reuters was ready: Backup generators kept its New York office running. “We had power when the rest of the building did not,” said Harrington. “We had access to computers and other electronic tools. The news went out; reporters were able to cover the stories. The only thing that was lacking was the cafeteria service.”

    Unfortunately, the company intended to use its White Plains, N.Y., facility as a backup site for its New York office—and White Plains was affected by the blackout too. White Plains employees, however, had options: Several traveled to a Pennsylvania bureau that was up and running.

    “It is imperative that you have backup,” says Tara Connell, vice president of corporate communications for media giant Gannett. “If one set of technology disappears, you have to have backup, and each one has to be tested along the way.”

    • Make it easy for employees to stay informed. Reuters maintains a toll-free number employees can use when disaster strikes. Callers receive generic information, Harrington explains, while individual managers can spread worksite- and scenario-specific information through a phone tree system, providing information that can help individuals and their families if needed. “The staff is not left to wonder whether we’re open or closed,” says Harrington.

    Gannett also maintains a toll-free number, as well as a web site that can be brought online when needed. “During the Olympics we used it to keep track of employees in Athens if they couldn’t communicate with each other about what to do and where to go,” says Connell.

    • Cover all your stakeholders. Gannett’s Washington, D.C.-area operations include its corporate headquarters staff, USA Today, WUSA-TV, a Virginia printing site and a backup site in Maryland. To cover all its bases, the company put together a crisis planning task force that addresses the potential needs of all those employees. Gannett newspapers and television stations across the United States, meanwhile, have their own plans, according to Connell.

    But the company’s disaster plan also goes outside company walls. “It brings everybody into the fold,” says Connell. “The plan tells us who talks to whom, who talks to families, to stockholders. It answers where do we go, how do we stay in touch? It’s very individual: A plan should be [unique to] each company.”

    Reuters, for its part, has an emergency management committee that can operate on corporate, regional or bureau levels. During the London outage, for example, it convened to hammer out a communication strategy. “The red alert went out,” Harrington says. “We had a global teleconference. We talked through what we would say to customers—all night we were issuing statements so customers would know which services were working and which were out.”

    • Remember the basics. Employees may make light of fire and evacuation drills—but you’ll be glad to have them should they ever be needed. Before the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., says Connell, “we didn’t practice getting out [of our buildings] enough. We now do that. We had a minor smoke fire [at headquarters], and everybody did exactly what they were told.”

    Employees should know where to go in times of necessity, how each of them will be accounted for, and who to notify if someone is missing.

    • Consider available technologies. Many companies use services that offer risk assessment and training and provide alternate work locations in case facilities are damaged. Many vendors, meanwhile, offer solutions that store backup data off-site for quick recovery: U.K.-based Picdar, for example, provides media companies with backup access to photographs and other digital assets that can be accessed remotely. As a result, says CEO Lesley Steinitz, Picdar customers “can switch over from anywhere, so they can still have a front page with a disaster story.”

Whatever your organization decides to do, Connell and Harrington agree that recovery systems, like evacuation plans, should be regularly tested and re-evaluated based on those tests. Gannett, for example, is constantly “refining and reworking the plan as each level of tests is completed. You can never do enough.”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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