All the safety precautions and procedures in the world are of little use unless they are communicated effectively. As crisis counselors, we routinely advise clients on how leadership should alert key audiences to timely matters such as how often property managers should be communicating with tenants in the event of an emergency.

It was through this lens which we viewed the colossal mistake that occurred in Hawaii on a recent Saturday morning. That’s when 1.4 million residents and 240,000 visitors were mistakenly alerted via their cellphones of an incoming missile attack due to an employee at the state’s emergency managing agency hitting the wrong option on a computer screen. This mishap was only compounded by a string of poor communications and procedures that followed.

While the scale of Hawaii’s crisis was state-wide, here are a few crisis tips we routinely preach in organizational planning that may have helped mitigate the damage and more quickly restored the public’s confidence in their government.

  1. Time is of the essence. 3 minutes after the alert was sent out at 8:07am, the Hawaii EMA director checked with U.S. Pacific Command, which said there was no missile. Yet it took the agency 38 tortuous minutes, in total, to notify the public via their phones that there was, in fact, no missile attack. This inexcusable delay provoked unnecessary anguish across the state’s 8 islands.
  2. Drill, drill, drill. While Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) reportedly conducts an internal missile drill three times daily, clearly, they hadn’t adequately considered how to respond if an alert was mistakenly sent. Part of good crisis preparation is anticipating every conceivable scenario.
  3. Understand Protocol. Emergency management officials were mistakenly under the impression that federal approval was needed before they could send out a correction confirming it had been a false alarm. Turns out, approval wasn’t required at all – but HEMA officials still waited more than 20 minutes before they actually tried to obtain it.
  4. Have the right people at the table. 48 hours after the incident, in trying to explain how such a mishap could have occurred, the Governor’s office released an image of the interface an employee was looking at on a computer screen when the false alert was sent. Predictably, news organizations around the world quickly shared the image. However, soon after, the Governor’s office clarified that the image was inaccurate and that it was HEMA’s mistake—once again. Had they partnered with the agency effectively, such sloppiness could have been avoided.
  5. Become a leader. Hawaii is, by far, our closest state to North Korea. Therefore, it shouldn’t just have an adequate missile alert and response system—it should have the best. Hawaii’s governor would go a long way towards restoring the public’s faith in his government by holding regular briefings on how HEMA is making improvements so that such a communications crisis never occurs again. While there will undoubtedly be plenty of scathing reports by federal regulators, only accountability and transparency by those responsible for public safety will help restore faith.