By Thomas Murrell, MBA CSP, International Business Speaker

A crisis, emergency or disaster can happen at anytime and anywhere.

Just ask the residents of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory.

Imagine a late afternoon on Christmas Eve thirty years ago, and looking outside to see your street cloaked by heavy low cloud and your windows being rattled by ever stronger rain squalls and wind gusts.

Two-hours after an eerie tropical sunset another check shows the winds are picking up sheets of corrugated iron and hurling them around like autumn leaves in a light breeze.

By midnight, as Santa was meant to bring the children of Darwin their presents, the damage is becoming serious. Over the next six hours Cyclone Tracy substantially destroys Darwin killing 65 people - 49 on land, and 16 at sea.

As dawn breaks on Christmas Day 1974, the early light reveals the devastating damage - 145 serious injuries, more than 500 with minor incidents, 70 per cent of houses are destroyed costing the community over $800 million dollars.

Wind gusts of 217 km/h were recorded before the anemometer was blown off its base and ceased functioning

The point is a disaster can strike when you least expect it.

And the media is far more demanding now than 30 years ago in 1974.

By preparing for such an event and having in place a crisis communications or emergency media plan, much of the added drama of having to deal with the media can be avoided.

The media plays a vital role in informing people what is happening during a crisis.

I remember as a fresh-faced, acting ABC Executive Producer at the tender age of 26-years old having to co-ordinate the emergency broadcasts for Australia's most powerful cyclone.

I'll never forget that day on the 23rd of April 1989 as a category 5 cyclone (on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 is the most powerful) crossed the North West Coast of Western Australia.

Known-as 'awesome' Orson, the cyclone caused the strongest wind gusts ever recorded at over 280 km/hour.

I remember that confused feeling of fear and excitement when your leadership is really tested. I had to ask one of the 'old hands' what I should do because I was so concerned, inexperienced, and frankly terrified of doing the wrong thing.

We organised an around the clock roster, breaking into regular programs and broadcasting updated warnings and information every 15 minutes for four days straight.

We may have been in Perth in a safe radio studio with walls covered in 1970s shag-pile brown carpet thousands of miles-away, but the 100 personnel on the production oil and gas platform North Rankin 'A' operated by Woodside Energy Limited, located 130 km off the coast near Dampier, hung on every word.

The barometric pressure bottomed out at 905 hPa as the huge storm passed over the rig in the dead of night with winds blasting up to 250 km/hr and waves more than 20 m high crashing over the massive steel structure.

In my whole 12-years with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this moment in time is etched in my memory as the one where my role as a professional communicator was having the most impact with an audience. One where people's lives depended on your ability to convey a message in a calm, clear and measured way.

Accuracy of information in a situation like this is vital.

And when it is not handled well it can be more than just a PR disaster.

In times like these it is better to work with the media rather than against them.

Relieved and tired when Orson finally turned into a tropical low somewhere over the red spinifex plains of the Pilbara and lost the power of its damaging winds, this experience taught me that there is no room for error in situations like these.

On the opposite end of the scale, the handling of the power crisis in Western Australia in February of this year is a classic case study of what can go wrong when an organisation fails to communicate with the community.

While executives enjoyed the comfort of their corporate offices and trappings of power, Perth residents and businesses were asked to swelter out forty-plus degree heat without their air conditioners and fridges or risk fines of up to $10,000.

All because the power utility couldn't cope with the electricity demands associated with a typical Perth summer. It doesn't take Einstein to work out that Perth gets hot in February and that this puts pressure on the power grid.

Engineers are not renowned for their public relations skills, and this was highlighted with Western Power's inability to communicate with the public and inform people just what was going on.

Western Power has since apologised for its "inadequate and incomplete communication" over what is now known as the "Black Friday" power crisis but it will take a long time to rebuild its reputation, trust and goodwill with the community of Perth.

Even now Western Power is spending over a million dollars on an expensive TV advertising campaign just to win back that trust.

They could have spent about $5,000 on media training and saved themselves $995,000.

How do you stay ahead of potential disaster in circumstances like this?

Simple, have a plan, road test and refine the plan with a hypothetical scenario, and then execute the strategy when the real crisis occurs.

The least Western Power could have done was to pre-warn the public of an impeding situation and put in a process of ongoing, two way communication with the people who matter most, the residents of Perth.

Here are 5 lessons all organisations should be aware of when dealing with the community over a public issue these coming Christmas holidays:

1. Plan for a crisis in advance.

2. Clarify your communication objectives.

3. Determine your spokesperson and road test their skills prior to a crisis.

4. Stick to the facts. Show empathy with those affected.

5. Develop an open and honest relationship with the media, avoid "No Comment" and be proactive.

My plea is please do all this prior to your regular management team going on holiday's and leaving it to a poorly trained, inexperienced and nervous skeleton crew to deal with.

I should know, 'awesome' Orson taught me that an emergency doesn't wait for the boss to come back.

Everything you need to know about dealing with the media in a crisis is in our "Winning the Media Game" course on Thursday, December 9th in Perth. Last chance for 2004 with only 5 places left. Don't delay book now