Creating an emergency reporting and operations plan

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An emergency operations plan should outline the basic risks, roles, resources, policies, and procedures for an emergency event, and is intended to be the primary guide for your organization to prepare and refer to during an emergency event, so the goal is to be as clear, detailed, and comprehensive as possible. The guide should be made easily accessible in various formats to anyone who might be involved in your emergency response, so that anyone in your organization can reference it both online and offline, such as during an outage or if a paper version is unavailable. 

Identify ways to train people so your organization has some redundancy of skills if someone is not available. Managers or those in charge of different types of roles or tasks within the outlet or during the emergency should be put in charge of organizing the information relevant to their job duties. For example, those in charge of revenue should contribute towards a plan for changes to revenue strategies or emergency fundraising. An editorial manager should be in charge of outlining plans for breaking news. You may want to include a table of contents depending on the size and scope of your outlet.

Steps to building your emergency plan:

  1. Assign at least one, preferably two people or relevant roles to bottomline organizing the plan, but people with specific roles should contribute relevant information.
  2. Identify a regular schedule (at least annually) for any staff or contractors to receive any training or practice emergency procedures, which should be included in the onboarding process. 
  3. Identify a regular schedule to update the plan.

The basic elements of an emergency plan should include the following, as relevant to your organization:

Roles and responsibilities:

  • Contacts and key roles during emergency response
    • This should include staff and contractors, key personnel during emergencies, as well as outside resources such as off-site editors or technical support, and contact information for health, legal, and related resources. Managers should consider surveying employees to identify what individual needs or resources they may have during an emergency, including access to communications and internet, housing, family needs, 4wd vehicles, etc. 

Supplies and resources:

  • Newsroom equipment/go bags, individual reporter equipment/go bags 
  • Newsroom equipment use policies
    • This should include information relevant to operating any publishing or distribution equipment during an emergency response, as well as information related to purchasing or distributing supplies and equipment. For example, this could include how to power up broadcast equipment using a generator.
  • Newsroom resources information
    • This should include detailed information about human resources and benefits such as health, legal, and other programs or available support, collaboration or support via other news outlets, community partners, or journalism organizations, and other resources that might be important to access during an emergency. 
    • Safety: If your newsroom has health benefits, mental health or crisis support, or similar resources such as a budget for hotels or travel that could be useful during emergencies, make sure everyone knows how to access these benefits. If providing these benefits is beyond your outlet’s resources, identify if there are available community or public resources that you could use.
    • Legal: Legal access to emergencies or evacuated areas for journalists vary by state, and it’s important to know what types of press access you are allowed during different emergencies. If possible, you may want to include contact information for your outlet’s legal resources or a journalist’s media law resource if any complications or questions arise while reporting.
    • Collaborators and community partners: Identifying other news people outside of your immediate area that could assist during an emergency, as well as potential media collaborators or distribution partners, will help you get information out more effectively if people in your newsroom or your communications infrastructure are impacted. You will also want to identify community groups that may be able to provide important information on the ground, or could share your reporting with those that need it.

Policies and procedures:

  • Internal safety procedures:
    • This should include evacuation plans for any physical offices or for individual employees if needed, as well as identifying alternate locations to meet up, emergency routes in your area, and how the organization plans to coordinate and utilize internal resources if needed
  • Internal communications plan:
    • This should include check-in procedures for notifying staff of emergency needs and assessing staff safety throughout an emergency, including a shared phone tree/contact list, and shared source list and maps. 
  • Editorial process/practices:
    • Breaking news/disaster procedures and definitions: This should include what circumstances you will begin to use the emergency procedures established, such as when an evacuation order is issued for a particular area, or when a specific type of weather warning occurs. 
    • Policies for story assignment, verification, publishing, and distribution
    • Policies for using equipment, publishing platforms and social media channels
    • Ethics for reporting and live coverage, including sharing information from private residents (i.e. destroyed homes in an evacuation zone, fatalities)Operations policies:
    • Information and plans for staffing, back-up coverage, and assistance/staffing outside the area
    • Safety and relevant operations or human resources policies, publishing and equipment policies, any relevant legal codes
    • Policies and protocols for changes to fundraising or revenue strategies during emergencies
    • Relevant policies for use of any emergency budget and policies for emergency needs, i.e. overtime, hotels

The emergency plan should cover everything from internal staff safety procedures, such as evacuating a physical office, editorial policies and plans to assign, report, fact-check, and publish during emergencies, and operations and revenue strategies for emergencies, such as scheduling and overtime budgets. Establishing your definitions of an emergency or breaking news strategy will be important in shaping your plan, as you may decide in advance you will not develop a strategy for immediate coverage — but you should also consider an event where providing real-time information to your audience is essential, and include a plan in case that occurs. 

Include procedures for when an emergency happens outside of typical working hours, and for situations in which an emergency includes disruption in communications, such as cell or power outages. It is not unusual for disasters to result in cascading impacts, such as power outages resulting from fires or floods, road closures, and water contamination after an industrial accident, which could severely impact your ability to connect and communicate with coworkers, sources, and your audience. You should designate on-call editors and reporters for weekends or overnight if you are in a newsroom that might be facing ongoing seasonal climate emergencies, such as wildfires.

Your plan should utilize different communications strategies depending on the communities impacted and their specific information needs, such as identifying translators or distribution partners for non-English speaking residents, launching an SMS service, or making printed flyers during an ongoing internet outage. 

Reading through your area’s official emergency plans and conducting a table top exercise to identify the different possible scenarios you might face in your area, ranging from weather and climate disasters to industrial accidents or mass shootings, can help you strategize and develop policies in advance to shape this guide. Depending on your audience, you may want to examine an individual city or county official emergency operation plan, which is a good place to start in assessing the potential risks or events you might face.

The plan can also help you identify what gaps you might want to address in your available resources or coverage plan, such as providing mental health benefits or ordering equipment, training staff on trauma-informed reporting, establishing relationships with community organizations or local agencies, coordinating distribution platforms, or ensuring you have a clear social media fact-checking or ethics policy in place for breaking news reporting. Once your emergency plan is developed, you will want to schedule regular intervals to train new staff as well as review and update the plan, including insights developed through additional table top exercises before an emergency, and hot wash exercises after a specific event. Different kinds of staff should provide feedback on relevant procedures, and the plan should also be updated when significant changes occur to your overall reporting policies or strategies.

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