When serious incidents occur, retailers’ thoughts turn to the safety of their store associates and customers and how best to implement crisis communication. “Are they okay?” is probably the question asked more than any other—and to better those odds, companies dedicate months and staff hours to craft policies, deliver trainings, and conduct exercises.
But there is always an upstream question that determines if all that preparation will pay off. Namely, “Do they know?” If you can excel in this area, then preparedness programs have a chance to deliver.
7-Eleven invests heavily in supporting the stores. It employs software to assess the potential impact of weather events on store assets, and when a major storm is seven days from landfall near operating locations, it goes live with a crisis communication command center to provide as much support to stores as possible. The company leadership engages franchisees in their corporate communications early on and holds several conference calls a day that franchisees can participate in to share information and concerns and identify support they might need.
But until recently, the company’s crisis communication pipeline wasn’t as robust in helping stores that could potentially be impacted by faster moving incidents, like a nearby robbery or active shooter event, or civil unrest in the neighborhood. In these incidents, the company’s call center would call stores in the affected area to alert them of the event so they could enact safety procedures.
“The mechanism we had to communicate to a store was an in-store phone,” explained Brent Smerczynski, corporate asset protection manager for 7-Eleven operations, safety, and regulatory compliance. “But there was no guarantee store associates would answer the phone.” This was especially worrisome for in-store overnight operations when emergency events are more likely to occur.
There are many facets to crisis communication. Operating units and the emergency command center must communicate effectively with one another, for example. So, too, must the individual members of the response team. But perhaps the most glaring need for communication is between the organization and store-level associates. Companies need an effective method for communicating emergency status information to employees, as gaps in this area can have safety consequences. “It’s not that what we had wasn’t working—we wanted a more efficient way to reach more locations and raise awareness,” Smerczynski said.
Smerczynski culled company records from past events to assess how often those calls didn’t reach their intended targets. Some stores were perfect, but some weren’t. Ultimately, the AP team decided the percentage of event-driven emergency calls answered by stores was not good enough. “We started to examine how we could improve,” he said.
In-House Crisis Communication Technology
Finding the best solution started by examining what stores already had at their disposal. “In the last few years, the company has made a commitment to become more digitally enabled,” Smerczynski shared. “We wanted to leverage current in-house technologies to support our vision and program.”
One of those technologies is the company’s 7MD (7-Eleven Mobile Device), a tablet that store location managers use for item information, managing cycle counts, handling payment, and even scanning products. It seemed ready-made for store-level communications. “We thought to look at how we might leverage that capability and the possibility of sending an Electronic Alert,” said Smerczynski.
With the full support of senior leadership, 7Alert was piloted in 700 stores within eight short weeks. The AP and operations teams identified what was needed, and the R&D team went to work developing the technology, which is essentially a software API between two platforms: the company’s case-entry system and the 7MD. Critically, the design pushes emergency notifications directly to the store.
Upon identification of an incident, the company’s hotline auto generates a notification to 7MD devices in a predetermined radius of the incident location, which sounds an alarm until someone manually confirms notification of the event on the device. Stores receive reminders or suggestions via the app for actions to take, such as dropping excess cash or to have panic devices on hand.
Most critically, it ensures the foundation for any successful crisis communication plan: knowing an incident has occurred. “We wanted to make our system push out notifications in a reliable manner,” said Smerczynski. “This has a forced interaction; store associates need to confirm on the device they have reviewed the alert, so we know we have fully reached the store.”
With the pilot proving successful, the app will soon roll out to all 7MDs. 7-Eleven’s communication team is producing a job aid with instructions to introduce stores to the new 7Alert emergency notification tool, and upcoming store visits will provide a touch point for field leaders.
Art Lazo, vice president of asset protection for 7-Eleven, stated, “The team has done a great job working cross-functionally and with emerging technology to make an existing notification system much better. The speed at which this was accomplished was extraordinary and will make an immediate impact.”
Regarding lessons for the industry, Smerczynski thinks his team’s experience is a reminder for AP to resist a siloed approach to finding solutions. While 7-Eleven’s AP team certainly had a head start with its existing store technology, many big-box stores are increasingly using similar handheld devices to facilitate store operations and can be a critical avenue to improve crisis communication and other AP priorities.
“We like to keep our finger on the pulse of what our internal partners are working on, to anticipate what’s coming, and to evaluate and improve on what we currently have in place to enhance current AP initiatives,” he said.
Along with the technology foundation, asset protection’s history of collaboration helped with the remarkable speed of the project. “There are those things that keep you up at night, and this provides a little sense of ease that we’re communicating with the stores, and that nobody is on an island,” said Smerczynski. “We feel like we’ve done a good thing.”
Options in Crisis Communication
Technology plays a foundational role in retailers’ ability to communicate with stores and employees, and for company-owned, company-operated entities there are multiple options. Yet, compared to other uses, technology’s role in emergency response gets less attention, according to Jerry Wilkins, PSP, cofounder of Active Risk Survival, a company that provides specialized emergency management training for security professionals. “Companies have emergency operation plans for responding to threats like tornadoes, hurricanes, and violence, but getting technology to be part of that workflow when a critical incident happens is not happening.”
Technology is a moving target, and several experts said retailers and their emergency teams should have a strategy for staying current with new options, devices, and advances in system design that could provide an upgrade to their existing strategy for emergency alerting.
A front-end content management system, connected to the cloud and then into each store, is a robust approach that provides plenty of flexibility in what messages go out and which screens they go to, according to Ben Hardy, senior product manager at Sharp NEC Display Solutions, a global provider of digital signage solutions. “When you have your CMS, you can create content, and whoever is managing that can push whatever message is needed to whichever screens you want in that ecosystem,” he said. “You can see every node and push wherever you want—like to every screen at store 438.”
According to Hardy, a retailer’s level of planning can make a big difference, from cabling and infrastructure to leveraging investments. “My suggestion is to think not only about the primary purpose of a screen, but what else a display might be used for,” he said. Displays in a retail store that have a primary purpose of showcasing ads and promotions can also alert employees or the public of emergencies or threats in an area.
Control over connected displays offers retailers flexibility in public alert messaging, something that may be useful considering what some experts feel is a growing complacency among the public at the sound and sight of store evacuation alarms. According to local press reports, for example, when emergency alarms sounded at Palisades Center in Rockland, NY, alerting shoppers to evacuate, few did—and it’s a problem noted in several emergency management surveys, including one by the federal Office of Emergency Management.
It’s not as easy for retailers with less scale and budget, but Hardy suggested there are workarounds to get content to screens when you don’t have a front-end type of control system that can talk directly to the monitor. “But a good thing about a CMS is you can easily customize content.”
That’s just one possibility. IP endpoints provide ever-expanding opportunities to improve communication, enhance coverage, and target messages for different situations and audiences.
The more channels of communication that an organization opens for emergency notification, the smaller the likelihood of having gaps in the crisis communication alerts they issue, suggested Helio Fred Garcia, president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and executive director of the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership. Building alert options include messages to IP phones, public address speakers, digital signs, and desktops. Personal or off-premises notification includes SMS text, mobile app alerts, email, phone calls and toll-free hotlines, and social media.
“You also need to plan for redundancy in the manner of delivering messages. If phone lines are down, if email is down, you still need to communicate,” he said. Using multiple methods to deliver crisis communication helps organizations reach more people, and it also helps when one of those avenues is cut off.
Multiple alerting options can also improve speed. “The sooner everyone is alerted about an event, the quicker they can respond, potentially minimizing the damage caused by a crisis event,” said Paul Shain, CEO of Singlewire Software. “This means being able to receive alerts about potential issues using on-premises and mobile devices.” Ideally, retail organizations should strive to have as many ways to contact stakeholders in an emergency as those stakeholders receive information, said experts.
Sending messages directly to workers via an emergency notification and mass communications platform is an alerting option that grows more powerful as consumer and store technology merge. Walmart, for example, said it will give Samsung smartphones to 740,000 frontline workers—half its US workforce—that will feature a new app allowing them to communicate directly with each other, clock in and out, and assist with customers’ questions. Push-to-talk over cellular (PoC) devices offer another crisis communication option, which may have less expensive service plans.
Having a range of messaging options facilitates better message targeting and tailoring—to select stores, to store management, to crisis team members, or to stakeholders in a geographic area. “Instant notification technology is increasingly seen as a good way for segmenting the audience, for understanding who opened the message, and third-party services can keep things more up to date than a printed emergency phone list,” said Garcia, who noted some companies have recently deployed their instant notification system to warn employees to not log in to company email networks during a ransomware attack. Shain added, “Mass emails can be easy to ignore, and individually texting or calling people can be time consuming. With a mass notification system, they can alert large groups of people quickly [of] the situation taking place.”
Mass notification platforms typically offer multichannel broadcast delivery, message customization, targeted recipient grouping, and reporting and analytics. They also help retailers manage disparate systems, which can streamline the delivery of alerts and prevent wasting time in a crisis. Often, notification is one component of an umbrella crisis event management solution that integrates risk intelligence, critical crisis communication, and incident management in one platform. “Unifying all the devices and systems an organization uses for communication with a mass notification platform can make managing alerts much more efficient,” said Shain.
Problems with Emergency Alert Systems
The reputation of emergency notification systems is not unblemished. Several years ago, following the worst mass shooting in Oregon history on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, a student fatally shot an assistant professor and eight other students in a classroom. Faculty members told local media that the school’s emergency alert system, designed to text cell phones and display a crawling message on school computer screens, did not activate. “I had my campus computer on and my cell phone next to me and the emergency notification system did not fire,” according to a professor who didn’t learn of the shooting until he later checked his email and found a message instructing staff to go into lockdown. Text alerts being received in the incorrect order—and thus making it difficult for recipients to follow instructions—is also a traditional complaint.
There is evidence, however, that systems are growing more reliable. In a survey of educators released in June by Campus Safety, only 3 percent said they experienced “many problems” with their emergency notification system during the pandemic, with delays being the most common complaint. Still, despite newer options, email remains the most common method for crisis alerts (80%) among the mature alert market of higher education institutions, ahead of text messages (71%) and far outpacing alert messaging via mobile safety apps and push notifications (27 and 26% respectively), according to Crisis Communication and Safety in Education, 2021 Survey Report by Rave.
According to Matthew Bradley, regional security director at International SOS + Control Risks, smartphone apps are particularly useful for alerting traveling employees to emergencies. Simultaneously, they can deliver safety information, provide updates, and facilitate safety check-ins. That trend—of using the same app for alerts and other travel risk management—has become common, he said.
Regarding social media, Garcia thinks it’s inadequate as a primary method of employee alerting because it won’t reach all employees, but that it can support a broader crisis communication plan. Crisis management representatives can jointly develop strategies with public relations executives to use social media platforms to keep key stakeholders—including the public, loyal customers, and the media—informed on crisis events.
Ultimately, Garcia said companies that are agile and can think creatively in crises tend to have the best track record for mitigating emergencies, noting how one large company client overcame downed phone and internet lines and limited cell service by using a skywriter to alert employees where and when to meet. “That is a good adaptation, and an indication that if you rely on technology you have to be nimble and agile in a crisis to communicate effectively.”
The Need for Consistent Messaging
While it’s helpful to have a range of alerting options, it can’t come at the expense of consistent messaging. In 2017, when describing Kroger’s success during Hurricane Harvey, Christopher Ochs, LPC, noted the importance of a crisis communication plan that establishes and maintains control of messaging. “You need to ensure that messages aren’t mixed, which can happen when you don’t have a single line of communication,” he said. Open lines of communication are critical, but clear lines of authority must accompany crisis communication, he advised.
A byproduct of the nation’s many active shooter events is information about the functioning of emergency notification systems in actual emergencies. The forensic analysis that often follows a tragedy provides information on what works, where problems can arise, and how to make systems more robust. Common problems cited include:
- A lack of guidance about what kinds of events should initiate the use of the emergency alert system,
- Identification of all individuals authorized to launch it, and
- What information should be provided.
Several others found that a lack of training and practice often delayed organizations from sending out time-critical notifications. Along with the ability to use an emergency mass notification system comes the responsibility to stay current, practiced, and maintain the ability to use it under pressure and without delay, noted one review.
As for message content, an alert to a retail worker should typically consist of three components, advised Garcia.
- Who is the message for? “They should know if the information is intended just for them or if it is for the customers, too.”
- What is the situation?
- What are you asking them to do? “You want to be clear with what you are asking the employees to do,” said Garcia. “It’s not enough to say that there is a situation, and you are following it and will keep them posted. You want to tell them what to do in the meantime.” Absent instructions, for example, an employee who gets an alert and is scheduled to work is likely to stay home, Garcia added.
The Role of Loss Prevention
Loss prevention should work with their IT team and other leaders to determine the best strategy for delivering crisis alerts, and experts we interviewed offered the following ideas to ensure crisis communication quickly reach stakeholders.
- To ensure that alerts can go out quickly, draw clear lines of authority, and designate responsibility.
- Conduct routine tests of emergency notification systems to discover if targeted recipients don’t receive timely alerts and why.
- Review the existing system for issuing alerts annually to determine if it continues to meet the needs of the organization in terms of design and functionality, or if changes in the way individuals communicate require changes in the alert system.
- Write alert scripts in advance for a complete range of possible emergency scenarios.
- Assess if the emergency communication plan is sufficient for all workers and stakeholders, including non-English speakers, special needs, contractors, and others.
- Raise stakeholders’ awareness of how they will receive instructions in an emergency. Possible ideas include a periodic notice at the time of network sign-in; reminders in safety or departmental meetings; advertisement of the alert system during emergency or safety awareness days; and posters in elevators, breakrooms, restrooms, or other places where captive audiences may notice them.