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A look at the crisis communications around the Fort McMurray evacuations

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Like so many Canadians, I have been following closely the news around the Fort McMurray evacuation. It goes without saying that one can’t help but be moved by the dramatic video, the tragic losses, the personal stories of adversity, the related triumph of the human spirit, the generosity of a country coming together, the enormity of the whole thing.

As a student of crisis communications, I have also been following this story through that lens. And I must say the response of the politicians has, so far, been impressive.


Premier Notley has presented herself as calm and reassuring, exactly what is needed in this situation. When she said to her displaced constituents “Trust us that we have your back, that we will be there for you”, it was exactly what these people, who have had their world turned upside down, needed to hear.


Equally, Prime Minister Trudeau has done all the right things starting with staying away.  Heaven knows he seldom misses an opportunity for a photo-op, but good on him for realizing this wasn’t the time. There is nothing the officials and emergency responders around Fort Mac would need less in the circumstances than the Prime Minister and his entourage showing up and getting in the way.


His comment that it would not be a “particularly helpful thing” is a victory of common sense over opportunism, and stands in stark contrast to Stephen Harper at the forest fire in Kelowna last year. When he and his group showed up, firefighters were told to stop what they were doing, which was fighting the fire, and stand around while his people arranged a photo-op. It was obvious they did not appreciate being used as props. So good on Trudeau for not doing that.


In other ways as well, the political response has been solid. The quick mobilization of resources, the regular media briefings, the immediate cash for those who had to flee, the fast-tracking of EI for those who have lost their jobs. In fact, I can’t think of one area where either the provincial or federal government can be criticized.


Even the federal announcement of matching all private donations dollar for dollar has worked as a catalyst to encourage the generosity of Canadians from one end of the country to the other. The last count more than $50 million had been donated.

This story will evolve over the coming months and years, and no doubt there will be political stumbles and controversies along the way. But looking at it from a crisis communications point of view, the way both Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau are handling it so far, is textbook.

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