Last week at a meeting of public radio news directors, I gave a presentation about the importance of prototyping for disaster planning -- getting off our chairs and actually trying out our plans. Here's a quick sketch of the speech, with documents included.
CONSIDER OPERATIONS AND SYSTEMS -- To do good journalism in moments of crisis, your systems and operations have to be ready at three levels: newsroom, station and a backup site in your city/region.
PROTOTYPE PROTOTYPE PROTOTYPE -- To find out if you're ready, try it, test it, simulate it, do it. And repeat. Don't just write emails. And don't get too complicated. Take a page from design thinking and keep it simple. Then you don't get too invested in the test, and are open to changing your ways.
Prototyping Newsroom Systems
Example 1 -- Crisis Information Flow
At WNYC, we used Post-It notes to simulate how information flows through our newsroom to air during a breaking news situation. "Facts" were represented by shapes, and we watched how they moved (or didn't) through the process. We learned a ton, which you can see in our full case study, including a 15-mininute movie. What we learned improved our coverage of a big news story that broke the very next day.
Example 2 -- Full Scale Drill
We've also done a full-scale crisis drill, simulating a dirty-bomb attack. This involved the entire news and technical staff, who responded to information (wire stories, witness information, etc.) sent to them roughly once a minute for an hour. Due to the sensitive nature of this drill, I have not posted our case study. If you are interested in learning more about it, please contact me.
Prototyping Station Preparedness
Example -- Blackout Plans
To test our backup power, we regularly cut power to our facility (usually late at night) and make sure it still works. During the day, we actually relocate hosts to our backup room, as they'd do in a real outage.l Just three weeks ago, two of us got out of our chairs, walked to a key breaker box, and took a new look at which switches we'd have to throw in a blackout. In the process, we realized there were no backup lights in that room, so we wouldn't have been able to see the switches! We solved this with a $15 power-failure light.
Prototyping Operations Elsewhere in Your City/Region
Example -- Make Other Arrangements
Be ready to move somewhere else; we've had to do it twice (once on 9/11, once during the northeast blackout of 2003). We've arranged with another local studio to be our backup facility, and we have key equipment and supplies in place there now. Our full news and technical staff will be visiting the facility to see, touch and feel what it's like to set up there. We're also installing our own set of phone lines so we can do live call-in programs -- which have been essential components of our crisis coverage.
Click here for a 2-page PDF of helpful tips and tricks for public radio stations.