When Sherry Llewellyn, director of public affairs for the Howard County Police Department, received the dispatch call about an active shooter at the Columbia Mall, it was almost surreal. “Is this actually happening, are we sure it is not a training exercise,” asked Llewellyn. But it quickly became evident that police were dealing with a real and dangerous situation on the fateful Saturday morning in January 2014.

Llewellyn directed the Howard County Police Department’s crisis response and shared her perspectives on the crisis and lessons learned as a keynote speaker at the June 4  Chesapeake Conference in Catonsville, hosted by the Maryland Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

In advance of the conference, she was asked about lessons learned from that crisis.

Q. What was one of the most important lessons learned from this experience?

A. This experience made it clear that we can become our own news sources, providing information to the public at the same time as the media, while in the midst of a crisis situation. People could go to an array of places to get information, but if they stayed with us, we would be the confirmed source at a time when it was critically important. And the media was getting it at the same time.

Q. How did you use social media to help with the flow of information and be as transparent as possible?

A. First and foremost, we wanted to be the single place to come for accurate and confirmed information. During news conferences, we encouraged people to follow us on Twitter and it was interesting to see how quickly our followers increased within the first few moments. As a government agency, social media gives us a strong, additional tool for sharing verified information and people seem to want that source in digital media.

Q. What do you think is a basic, fundamental skill necessary in today’s digital environment, particularly during a crisis situation?

A. As communicators, we have to share information in ways that are best for our audience. It may not always be the most comfortable, but you have to cover all the bases to cover all the people trying to reach you. For many, it’s following along on social media. But some want to be at the scene with cameras and notebooks asking questions. So you have to provide information in that arena as well.

Photo: WBAL-TV

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