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Years to Build, Seconds to Break: Why Trust is Everything in a Crisis

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been describing the 3 major issues we see holding organizations back from an optimized critical event management (CEM) response.

We covered Time, Technology — and now we’ll look at the third one: Trust.

Crisis Communications and the Fallout of False Alarms

In the last few years, we’ve all become accustomed to false alarms and public battles over what, exactly, constitutes “fake news” or “misinformation.” Events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are rich with examples.

The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimates that in the first three months of the pandemic, 800 people died and 5,800 people were admitted to a hospital globally simply as a result of consuming erroneous information.

But well before that, false alarms were making the headlines for other reasons. Who can forget the Hawaii nuclear alert incident of 2018, when residents were warned through the Emergency Alert System to seek shelter from incoming missiles – a message that concluded with "This is not a drill." 

It took authorities 38 minutes to correct the communication. Analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later confirmed that “People were terrified when they were alerted that a ballistic missile was hurtling toward Hawaii. But when they learned that the alert was actually a false alarm, they were livid.”

“This ‘cry of wolf’ damaged the credibility of alert messaging, which can be dangerous when a real emergency occurs,” Lisa Fowlkes, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) official, said during a House committee hearing on the U.S. emergency messaging system.

Two years later, in Canada, a similarly disturbing warning was issued in error by two employees at the Provincial Emergency Operation Centre. Not only had they sent the alert to nearly every phone in the province, but they also didn’t know how to retract it.

Emergency management expert Jack Rozdilsky said at the time, “In this case, the fallout is not radioactive, it is increased public uncertainty concerning the reliability of systems meant to warn…about disasters.”

What’s required in any critical event – from routine issues all the way up to the most severe – is accurate, trustworthy information coming in and going out, in a continuous loop, until the incident is resolved.

This begs a separate but equally important question: How are you protecting the often highly sensitive information you need to store as part of your communication planning? Examples include things like maps of your premises; operational details; or personal health or contact information. Not just any critical event management (CEM) solution will do.

The Best CEM Outcomes Depend on Valid Information

Making the best decisions in a crisis depends on having the right information. But many organizations and employees can’t be sure the information they’re sharing or receiving is accurate or secure.

  • Decision-makers need to know that what they’re hearing is accurate, validated, and verifiable. But too often, reports are off the mark, based on rumor, guesses, or panic.
  • Administrators sending messages in a crisis need reliable confirmation that those communications are received.
  • People receiving messages need to trust the source and the guidance. Individuals closest to the scene need the ability to get information back to those who can take action.
  • Administrators need to trust that contact information is up-to-date and accurate for both recipients and partner organizations.
  • Those whose information is in the system need to trust that it’s safeguarded to the very highest levels, in a time of ever-increasing hacks and breaches.

These issues are all interconnected. Without the right approach, none of this is easy.

How to Build Trust Into Your CEM Approach

Very often, getting the right information depends on asking the right questions. Here are four trust-related questions you can ask regarding your current CEM approach.

1. Does your CEM system help you plan your reactions, train those who need to use it, and when required, make changes on the fly?

Recent research from the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) found that many organizations are already making “a concerted effort to ensure staff access can identify reliable sources of information during an incident.” According to the BCI report, 43.9% of respondents said they “actively trained their staff to help them identify credible information sources.”

That’s a good start – but the number should be much higher. Even if you have the best technology working for you, communication still involves a human element. Your CEM solution should help you reduce the risk of human error by including built-in tools or modules that let you plan ahead for various scenarios, creating premade templates, and ensuring all processes are clear and updatable when things change.

2. Does your solution help ensure that contact details are up-to-date, all in one place, and highly secure?

Contact and location data are among the most important information resources in any crisis communication solution. But they’re also the most vulnerable. The contact details you store may include, for example, the CEO’s mobile number and home address, or legally protected PII (personally identifiable information) records.

Your CEM solution should be designed so that administrators know contact details are always up to date, and everyone in the organization can trust their details are secured to the highest standards. That applies not only to people inside your organization, but also to the partners you may need to collaborate with in a critical event. Imagine needing to reach the facilities or emergency manager of the building next to yours in the middle of crisis and not trusting that you have the right mobile number or email address for them?

3. Once you send an alert, do you know in real-time who’s seen it and who hasn’t?

For users on the ground, your CEM should be the information source they can rely on – no need to hope that a WhatsApp group or Twitter account will get the word out, or to look around to see if anyone is running for the exits. If you’re in charge of getting the message out, you need to know who received it. You need to be sure they can respond to let you know if they’re okay or not. 

And when the crisis is over, you need a fully auditable trail of everything that happened so you can make improvements for next time — and if necessary, to prove to regulators or investigators you took all the right actions to keep an incident from becoming a disaster. 

Who Do You Trust?

When it comes to trust, you don’t want to compromise. BlackBerry® AtHoc® is used and trusted by 75% of U.S. federal government employees, as well as leading response agencies around the world. Talk to us. 

Ryan Burrus

About Ryan Burrus

Ryan Burrus is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at BlackBerry.