How to keep fans safe and informed at sporting events

By Vivian Marinelli, PsyD

Millions of people attend sporting events each year. The last thought on their minds is how to react to a crisis or disaster while at the event. Implementing an in-depth disaster plan with the inclusion of social media is one of the best ways to ensure the fans are kept safe and informed.

More than 17 million fans attended NFL games in the 2014 season. With each team averaging 68,321 fans per game, what can they do to ensure their safety in the event of a crisis or disaster, either manmade or natural?

Draft a plan

The first step to creating a safe environment is to develop an in-depth disaster plan. The purpose of the plan is to protect your fans. Keeping them safe and informed is priority number one. Remembering this while developing your plan will help you target and understand areas of need.

Every plan should focus on:

Crisis Planning Team. The team will consist of individuals from all departments at the venue. Obvious choices include your security team, but also employees from administration, food service, merchandising, and IT. This will allow you to have the entire spectrum of the venue covered, and you will gain a better understanding of important issues you might face during a crisis.

Risk Assessment. This is where you will identify and assess specific potential threats or crises to your particular sporting event or venue. The goal of the assessment is to lessen the risk of the crisis by adding precautions. The exercise also ranks the crises in order of likelihood.

Disaster Plan. Once the potential risks are identified, you can now develop a plan. While each plan will be similar in some areas, they will be different as they pertain to each crisis, eg, tornado versus active shooter. All staff should understand their individual roles and responsibilities within the plan.

Communication Plan. With hundreds to thousands of fans attending sporting events and venues, your communication is imperative in getting each and every one of them to safety. You should articulate in your plan how and what you are going to communicate during a crisis event.

Employee Training. Every single employee needs to understand his or her role in the disaster plan, whether it is to help evacuate or just get to the predesignated meeting area. Their direct knowledge of the plan could save lives. During a crisis, a fan may ask a food service vendor where to go, for example. It’s imperative that they know the answer to this question.

Test the Plan. An untested plan is a plan built to fail. Test your plan with real-life mock scenario drills and exercises. The testing will show what areas of the plan work and which don’t. It also shows which areas of your venue are the most or least secure. Do this testing annually to certify the effectiveness of the plan. Working with local emergency management agencies is pivotal during drills and exercises too. Their input can be extremely helpful in developing an effective evacuation or response plan. It also is helpful because you are building relationships in case of an actual situation.

Update the Plan. Disaster plans are never done. They are living documents and need to be updated regularly. The Crisis Planning Team should meet every three to six months to evaluate and update the plan based on risk and trends.

Communications and social media

So, you have the key elements to focus on for an effective disaster plan. Now, it’s time to look at one of the most difficult aspects of your plan: crisis communications.


  • Accurate, timely information. Informing fans, media and the general public of the crisis is crucial during the event. Millions of people now use social media as a way of not only conveying information, but gathering it as well. One problem your venue will face is a tweet from a major news outlet looks exactly the same as a tweet from your organization. In normal situations this is not an issue, but in the midst of a crisis, information received is often taken as fact regardless of the source. This can create confusion. You most likely already have an online presence in social media, but to make it easier for people to gather information quickly in the event of a crisis, it is a good idea to implement a hashtag to go along with your social media posts.
  • Consistency in your message across all channels. A crisis can be very hectic. The last thing you want to do is to confuse people further by sending out inconsistent messaging or saturating social media with message after message. Prescript a few messages for each crisis or disaster scenario identified in your risk assessment. This makes it easier to use small tweaks in the midst of a crisis while keeping your focus on the bigger picture.
  • Share as much information as you can without putting the lives of fans, employees or first responders in danger. You do not want to put your head in the sand and hope the situation resolves itself. Use social media to let people know there is a situation, what you’re doing to resolve it, and where people should go for safety. This will not only help during the crisis, but will also build trust with your organization.

In all of the most recent crises, we have seen the digital environment of social media as the immediate outlet for information. The speed by which pictures and videos can be uploaded and shared is almost instantaneous. Messaging about the incident moves at breakneck speed as well. How will your organization best use this resource?

  • As a listening resource, acquiring information on what is being said about the incident.
  • For organizational messaging, providing information about the response.
  • For crowdsourcing, asking for information from the general public.
  • For post-incident monitoring public sentiment of the organizational response.

As you integrate this resource into your emergency response planning, pay specific attention to these details:

  • Create an owner within the organization for the social media plan.
  • Establish listening posts, eg, Google Alerts, Social Mention, or Twitter Search.
  • Identify communication vulnerabilities.
  • Develop or maintain internal and external social media communication policies

Other outlets

Social media is not the only way you can inform employees and fans of the situation. Use every resource available to your venue to spread information as quickly as possible.

Most sporting venues have a speaker system, Jumbotron, video screens, and evacuation lighting. All of these are excellent resources to convey what’s going on and what people should do during a crisis. Other methods available are warning sirens, public service announcements and SMS/text messaging.

No matter the resource, the goal is to get information to your fans in attendance and employees. Using these alternate forms of communication, coupled with an in-depth disaster plan will only help you spread the information quickly and accurately.

Vivian Marinelli is the senior director of crisis management services for FEI Behavioral Health. She holds a Doctorate Degree in Clinical Psychology and is a Licensed Psychologist in Wisconsin. www.feinet.com