“Accidental” nuclear emergency alert

At 7:23 a.m. today the Province of Ontario broadcast an emergency bulletin to cellphones across the province. Still mostly asleep, my cell phone blared and this message appeared:

This is a Province of Ontario emergency bulletin which applies to people within ten (10) kilometres of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. An incident was reported at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation. People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective action at this time. Remain tuned to local media for further information and instructions.”

IMG_7356What a wake-up call. My sister and her family live just North of Pickering so, of course, we were concerned… plus the whole nuclear thing, of course. So we tuned in to media to see what was happening. Crickets.

  • Around 45 minutes later the news reported that the message was sent by accident.
  • One hour and 45 minutes later, at 9:11 am, a second email emergency blast came through.

“There is NO active nuclear situation taking place at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. The previous alert was issued in error. There is no danger to the public or environment. No further action is required.”

Hmmm. I’ve led crisis communications teams and further action is definitely required. Like, explaining what the heck happened?

Here are my first three questions:

  • Who signed off on the original alert and what is the process to do that? I’ve worked in government, you need sign off for everything. On top of that, a golden rule of communication is the information needs to be accurate.
    • Several hours later, the province is saying the error took place during emergency measures training. If that’s the case: you need a better “are you sure?” message; you need a step where you confirm with the agency in question; AND the “oopsies” response should have been much faster.
  • Another important communication rule is that if you are going to scare people, you have to tell them what to do. “Stay tuned” is much too light under the circumstances. While this might have been a canned message, it’s not a good one.
  • Why was the news that this was error come through Twitter at 8:06 a.m.? It’s a totally different channel. It won’t reach the same people you scared almost two hours ago and people will only find it if they are following you. This is terrible communication.

To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first time a crisis communications team caused its own crisis. These are massive errors in messaging, medium and timing. There will be a lot of explaining to do and processes to reinforce.

If you, or your organization, are unfamiliar with crisis communications or don’t have a crisis communications plan, perhaps this is a catalyst to think about one. “Nothing ever happens here,” is not accurate. Every day, organizations of all sizes have data security breaches, harassment issues, violence, product recalls, financial impropriety – you name it. If you are in a large organization, your Public Affairs department should have a crisis plan and practice it regularly. This means back-up technology, off-site recovery and staff relocation plans, alternate communications methods, call-trees, access to social accounts, you name it.

What would you do today if there was a wildfire? Active shooter? Data breach? The key is to create your plan before there is a crisis and test it. The real thing will never follow your plan precisely but you will have essentially mapped out best practices ahead of time. You follow-them as closely as you can, making allowances for the circumstance.

I’ve lived this. In January 2003, I was the manager of media relations for a company whose hard drive, containing 170,000 client files was stolen from a secure location. We’re used to Equifax, Desjardins, LifeLabs privacy breaches now, but at the time, we were one of the first companies in the country to disclose a breach that was national in scale. We used the crisis communication plan. You should have one too.


Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

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