This Crisis Counselor’s Onsite Lessons from the Global Citizen Festival

October 1, 2018


No matter how much you prepare for a crisis, you don’t truly know how you’ll act until you’re tested.

I had that chance while attending the Global Citizen Festival attended by 60,000 people this past weekend when I got caught up in the stampede fleeing New York’s Central Park.  After exiting the portable restroom area, I walked towards my daughter and friend waiting a few yards away to suddenly see hundreds of panicked people running directly towards us with some yelling that there was a shooter.  Metal crowd control barriers were pushed down as people scrambled to flee the scene, with concert goers (including one small child that I saw) being pushed out of the way and some separated from their families and friends in the chaos.

Like everyone there, I had to make a quick decision about what to do next.  People were scrambling, some were crying, and I was hearing popping sounds coming from behind the rush of people.  While my first instinct was to run, I also had to consider that I had my daughter and her friend to shepherd, had no way of knowing if those sounds actually were from a shooter and, if so, how close that person was to us.  We ended up following a handful of others into a portable trailer and crouched down to make ourselves as small as possible until it sounded safer to go outside.

The New York Police Department originally advised that a fallen security barrier had caused the noise that triggered the stampede. They later reported that it was the sound of one or more attendees stepping on and popping drink bottles. In these frightening times of too many mass shootings, it did not take long for part of the large crowd to panic and their fear to become contagious.

From what I experienced and heard about later, emergency response officials and festival organizers did an overall excellent job quickly addressing the situation and calmed the crowd so that – remarkably — the show could continue.

Being a crisis management counselor, and having developed many crisis plans and conducted many crisis simulations for many companies, I had already thought much about emergency response. While getting dressed for this event, for instance, I hesitated wearing sandals and wondered if I should instead wear closed-toe shoes in case I needed to run. As soon as I arrived at the event, I showed the girls the closest exit and we agreed upon our meeting point if someone got lost.  But, in hindsight, I should have gone further.

While there were some resulting injuries at this event, it could have been much worse. It was also an important teaching and learning experience for attendees, families, organizers, emergency response and sponsors.  It was clear that Global Citizen, NYPD, the Fire Department of New York and security officials had a good crisis preparedness and response plan in place. But I imagine that they are reviewing and tweaking that now, based on the weekend’s experience.

Especially coming almost one year to the day after the Las Vegas shooting, let this be a reminder to all of us about the importance of crisis preparedness planning, training and testing. No matter what your company is engaged in – for example an event, marketing program, new product or executive media interview – they all have potential risks.  Always take time to consider possible scenarios and plan for them.

Also important: let’s not forget that the Global Citizen event successfully pulled together so many people focused on ending extreme poverty and other UN sustainable development goals and resulted in actions set to positively impact the lives of millions of people.

Even in these frightening times, there is also much reason for hope.