A crisis is an event that occurs suddenly, often unexpectedly, and demands a quick response. A crisis interferes with normal routines and creates uncertainty and stress. A crisis can be a natural event, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, or it can be man-made, such as an explosion, a scandal or a conflict. Ultimately, it can threaten the reputation of a top official and an organization. A well-managed crisis, however, can not only preserve reputations and credibility, but it can also enhance them.
Communication is key to successful management of a crisis, and the best way to be effective is to be prepared before a crisis occurs. Once an emergency happens, there is little time to think, much less plan. Without an overall crisis management and communications plan to which all senior managers in an organization have contributed, the emergency will be overwhelming and the public will quickly lose confidence. Who is on the crisis management team depends on the agency, topic and kind of crisis, but typically members might include officials involved with health, communications, fire and rescue, law enforcement, emergency management and transportation. The communications manager would handle the crisis communications and be a key player in the overall crisis management team. The crisis communications plan would launch once the emergency occurred.
“Good crisis communications is based on a system already in place,” said former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. “When there is a crisis, you just tighten it up and make it better. If you routinely had a daily press briefing, you would tighten it up and make it three times a day. A crisis is no time to design a new system.”
In a crisis, the best course of action is to be forthcoming and honest and to do what it takes to facilitate news coverage. The media are going to write and broadcast stories with or without your help. It’s in your best interest to participate in a story — even a negative one — in order to have your position correctly represented. The alternative is for the media to write that a government official “would not respond to our inquiries,” which only fuels suspicions and rumors.
“If you do not engage and respond, the media will simply get information in another way, and it might be information that is not correct,” said one government communicator.
“In a crisis, bring all the key players into a room and get the facts straight. Never tell more than you know, don’t freelance what you think, and constantly update reporters,” said a former reporter and government communicator. “Reporters have to get information, and if you don’t give them anything, they will report rumors.”
Today, digital and social media make it easier to communicate during a crisis. Social media can get messages out quickly to a wide audience and can get feedback from them as well. Twitter, in particular, has become particularly effective for emergency communications.
That is what happened in Memphis, Tennessee, during a tornado. “We had begun by blogging and using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but then a tornado hit,” said the supervisor of communications and public relations for Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW), a public utility.
“We used Twitter to update customers about outages, and the response was tremendous. Our growth went from 220 followers to over 1,500 over five days. It was a landmark event for us,” he said.
MLGW tweeted on outage updates, safety, numbers to call, restoration progress, as well as doing rumor control. “And one of the biggest advantages was the information we pulled from customers,” he said.
In another southern city, hit by historic floods, social media “was an excellent tool to use for rumor control,” the communications manager later blogged. She added that Facebook and Twitter usage in the city tripled during the emergency. “These citizens want the latest, happening-now information.” Not only did the city send citizens information, but citizens provided the city “with information from our neighborhoods on downed trees, flooded streets and more.”
Sometimes crisis management can mean tracking issues that could become crises and dealing with them before they mature to full-blown emergencies. If a well-used highway is near a landslide area, conditions should be monitored and improved by the crisis management team before a landslide occurs. The crisis communicator, as part of this, would alert the public to the potential dangers. The press official might use more traditional media to highlight dangers, and if a landslide struck, would use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to alert to the emergency. They and other social media are effective early warning systems for breaking news. Coordination is also important.
“The key to dealing with crises is focusing on what it is you’re trying to achieve,” Doug Wilson, President Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told The Washington Post. “You have to think about who you need to involve as you develop positions and responses. That means understanding that there are many components and players and making sure you reach out to all of them. I have found that inclusion, tempered by focus and awareness of the need to move expeditiously, usually results in the kind of decision-making that enjoys broad support.”
And as in other elements of communication, there is the before, the during, and the after in effective crisis communications.
Before a Crisis: Develop a Communications Plan
• Maintain trustworthy, credible relationships with the media all of the time. If you do, the media will be less suspicious and more cooperative in the midst of a crisis.
• In collaboration with the overall crisis team, collect information on potentially troublesome issues and trends. Evaluate them and develop communications strategies to prevent or redirect their course.
• Determine which agencies might take the lead and which would be members of a crisis management team for possible crisis scenarios. For example, if you are in a hurricane zone, determine which agency would be the lead — perhaps an emergency management agency — and which others would be part of the crisis team, such as agriculture, housing, health, education, transportation and seniors, whose missions would be impacted by the crisis.
• Establish procedures for collaboration among agencies to minimize redundancy and to ensure that information is consistent and accurate.
• Identify members of a possible crisis management team. Have in place the roles they would play as well as a list of their office, home and mobile phone numbers, their email addresses, Facebook and Twitter addresses and home addresses. When a crisis hits, one means of communication may be shut down, and you may have to turn to another.
• Have a designated crisis communication manager, who would be part of this team.
• Save copies of the crisis team’s biographies. In a crisis, the press may want to know the backgrounds of those dealing with it.
• Give media training to anyone who will speak to the press.
• Determine the message, target and media outlets that could be used in various crisis scenarios.
• Know the media you would use to put out messages about the crisis. Plan to put videos and transcripts of all press conferences on your website and on your social media sites as well as any other materials, such as statements, press releases, fact sheets and photos that you might release.
• Develop a social media strategy as part of any crisis communications plan. Twitter may be one of the first places citizens turn for updates in a crisis. In traditional media, radio is particularly important in emergencies.
• Have a list of the office, home, and mobile phone numbers and email addresses of your staff and reporters.
• Come up with a procedure to coordinate communication across agencies. Assign which agency takes the lead on what issue. This is particularly easy when discussing natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, which may reoccur.
• Develop a first-hour response checklist.
• Draw up an organization fact sheet as the information might be needed.
• Have a plan for setting up a media crisis center. This should cover such items as desks, chairs, and technical needs. Decide how you will keep the office secure, particularly for your own staff.
• Develop scenarios to deal with crisis at special events. For example, at a recent international conference organized by a number of organizations, the crisis communications plan designated spokespersons for different controversies that related to each of their audiences. The group also developed talking points for the spokespersons on more general issues that might arise. Fortunately none did, but still they were prepared.
During a Crisis
When a crisis hits, immediately get the word to the press and release information through social media and your website. Otherwise, the media — and the public — will get information through other sources, which may not be as accurate. As the saying goes: If you are not quick, you are not relevant.
“The media will act in a predictable way,” a former reporter told a convention of government communicators. The media “will seek to get close to the action, will talk to anyone, will research past incidents, will seek out third-party experts, will seek to establish cause or blame, will identify with victims, will often get the story wrong, and will have a short attention span.”
You need to help them do their job.
As part of your planning checklist, she suggested having an initial statement to use immediately — something like, “My name is so-and-so and I am TITLE with ORGANIZATION. I can confirm there has been an incident. We want to assist with your story but we have to gather facts before saying anything. We want to get the story right, and at the moment we don’t have enough information to answer questions. We will be back in touch in an hour to give you an update, and all briefings will come from the media center.”
• Set up a 24-hour crisis and media center at a central place from which news is released, rumors dealt with, facts gathered and briefings held.
• Immediately “go public” through all your media tools. Post what you know online in video and transcript formats, and in audio mode. Tweet key information and also use SMS messages.
• Develop one Web page and one social media site into which each government agency that is involved in the crisis management can post their information. This will help citizens quickly get information and prevent their having to search numerous sites.
• Have a trained spokesperson at the scene – or at the media center – to conduct press briefings. Update him or her on when the next briefing will occur.
• Say what you know and only what you know. Don’t speculate. Don’t say anything based on rumor. If you don’t know something, admit it. Saying “the matter is under investigation” may be the best response.
• Gather information as quickly as possible. Determine the basic who, what, when, where and how. You might not get the “why” until much later.
• Get the government or agency leader and other top management to the crisis site or the media center as soon as possible. Citizens want to see the leader, not just the crisis manager or public affairs staff, when a crisis hits. Having top management in front of the press during a crisis lends credibility and shows that the organization is treating the situation seriously.
• Inform your internal audiences – the staff and other government offices – at the same time you inform the press. Staff need information too. Because they work at an organization involved in the crisis, they will be seen by the media and public as sources of information. They need to have it right and not be the origin of rumors and false information. You can communicate with your internal audiences by e-mail, SMS, tweets or other means. If possible, convene a meeting at which members of the crisis team are available to answer staff questions.
• Speak on the record.
• Treat all media equally. Shut no reporter out.
• Maintain a calm, gracious, and helpful presence. Avoid appearing flustered or overwhelmed.
• Pre-empt negative publicity and communicate the actions being taken to solve the crisis. Verify news before releasing it.
• Arrange for media access to the scene of the crisis, if at all possible. Photographers and videographers need pictures; reporters need to write up what they see. If there are space constraints, use press pools to write up a report and take pictures to share with their colleagues. No media representatives, including those in the pool, may use these until all media wanting them have them in hand.
• Take care of the practical and technical needs of the press, such as desks, chairs and so forth.
• Keep a log of reporters who have called, emailed, texted or communicated by social media. List what they asked, their deadlines, if indicated, what you promised, and to whom it was delegated.
• Quickly return phone calls, emails, SMS messages and social media queries. If you don’t, the media will look elsewhere for information. They will write a story with or without your help. When you are not responsive, you lose control of a story.
• Constantly update news on your website and social media properties.
• Simple sympathetic gestures can help rebuild the public’s confidence. Offer reassurance. Tell what actions are being taken to solve the problem, to help those affected, and to return things to normal. But first make sure you are doing what you say you are doing and only state the facts as known.
• Make sure the spokesperson is involved with senior management in every decision and policy made. Each decision has a public ramification, whether management recognizes it or not.
• Avoid fixing blame. That can be done after an investigation.
• Express empathy for victims.
• Appeal to third-party endorsements for your efforts. Get credible people who have been through similar experiences and command the public’s attention and respect to speak on your behalf.
• Update information frequently and regularly. Announce when your next update will be.
• Monitor media reports and correct errors immediately.
• Establish an assessment group to study the problem and to prevent future occurrences. This is not for show; they should have real power.
• Remember: openness and responsiveness during a crisis enhance your respect and credibility with the media and most importantly the public. It can help you in the long run.
After a Crisis
• Evaluate how you did in the crisis. Determine what worked, what didn’t work and what needs to be improved.
• Assess the effectiveness of the crisis plan.
• Correct problems so they don’t happen again.