Monday, February 7, 2011

There's a Gunman in the Building: How Discovery Communications Handled the Crisis

(Originally appeared in the IABC February 2011 Newsletter written by yours truly)

On September 1, 2010, James J. Lee, a militant environmentalist who had picketed Discovery Communications headquarters in downtown Silver Spring, MD in the past, entered its lobby and took three people hostage. Lee had a bomb strapped to him and threatened to blow up the building.

Last month, Michelle Russo, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Discovery, shared her team’s experiences and lessons learned before an audience of more than 100 communications professionalat IABC/DC Metro's regular chapter meeting.

Russo said one of the first things she realized as the crisis unfolded, is that no amount of planning can prepare you for feeling personally threatened. Thus it is important to monitor your own reaction and that of your colleagues. Relying on a well-thought out Crisis Plan is important, but so is relying on your best professional instincts to guide your actions throughout the crisis.

Here are some of the other lessons learned from that day and its aftermath:

Prepare to Message in the Moment – Crisis communications plans are reviewed by many people who adapt messaging to what they’re comfortable with. But those carefully crafted messages – in a genuine crisis – are not always what you need. Russo realized that her team knew what to say and how to say it, so messages were developed on the spot and it worked.

Consider Not Talking to the Media Right Away - Within minutes, news of the gunman entering the building spread to local and national media. Russo and her team received calls almost immediately and reporters arrived in downtown Silver Spring. The team established their first priority was Discovery employees, not a media response. The communications team decided against talking to reporters until the situation was resolved. They relied on their track record of good relationships with the media and hoped reporters would understand later why their responsiveness was not at usual levels.

Assign a communications team bridge – Russo monitored the executive bridge, where Discovery’s global leaders were kept abreast of the situation. She suggested that it would have been helpful for the global communications team to have a bridge as well to keep information flowing to the company’s front-line communicators.

Consult Other Businesses in Your Community on Your Crisis Plan – Since the Discovery building was evacuated very quickly, many employees left house and car keys, bags and other items in their offices. Local organizations pitched in to help - from the hot dog vendor warning people not to go back into the building after lunch - to another large organization which assigned two staff people to help Discovery make sure its employees got home. Russo suggested, as a best practice, to set up a reciprocal business continuity agreement, in certain situations.

Planning a Global Celebration Helped Communications Run Smoothly - Earlier that year Discovery held a global celebration of its 25 th Anniversary which lasted a full week and required partnering and planning large scale logistics with offices around the world and helped instill a cohesive internal community that was invaluable on September 1.

Employees will want to share their experiences, give them guidance on how – Discovery’s approach to social media during the crisis was to respect its employees and the decisions they made. While they asked employees not to tweet, Facebook or communicate with press about updates during the crisis, they did not want to stop people from assuring their families and friends they were safe. When two of the three hostages decided they wanted to do media interviews employees were notified so they were not surprised when their colleagues were reliving the day via various media outlets


  1. All great insight and experiences. The value of a plan and preparation is not typically recognized, until an incident like this occurs. Most incidents aren't as extreme, but the more routine events can succeed for fail just as easily.

  2. Aimee-Great post! I especially like the concept of messaging in the moment. We can all write pretty words, but what looks great in the plan may look insincere in the moment. As for not talking to the media...not something I would advise...but something that seemed appropriate for this crisis and worked. People always have to be the priority even if it makes reporters wait a bit.

  3. Thank you - It took awhile for Michelle and her team to publicly discuss what happened that day - it was a very emotional time. But I hope reading about her experiences will help others in a crisis situation.

  4. I bet it was very tough for them to share those experiences. I've already learned something reading about it and I'm going to include some of this in a post I'm writing. Hopefully that will spread the word a little farther. Thanks again.