Helpful Tips for Handling Crisis Communications

Using innovative technology combined with ‘old school’ paper format.

With social media, toll-free hotlines and journalists knocking at your door, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the communication options to keep employees and the public safe during a crisis.

But the alternative could be worse.

“Your employees and the public demand clear, crisp communication,” said Regina Phelps, an international expert in emergency management and contingency planning and the founder of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions (Phelps, n.d.). “They expect and want you to be, transparent and forthcoming. If you are not out there telling your story, it is likely that someone else is doing it for you and, the chances are, you might not like their take on it.”

When people with a stake in the unfolding events are kept in the dark, they can quickly become confused and angry and react negatively. As a result, it can cast an unfavorable light on your agency’s reputation.

Your agency’s crisis communications plan should coordinate with law enforcement agencies, supply scripted responses to likely questions, and involve a highly-trained spokesperson to present the information. In addition, it should include social media and a dedicated toll-free phone number (Homeland Security, 2017). Use your agency website and social media accounts to provide updates and work with local media to disseminate the information.

If your in-house public relations person lacks training or experience in crisis communications, consider hiring an agency or independent consultant.  It’s important to designate and train a spokesperson in advance of media-worthy events.

Remember that when dealing with news reporters and the public, it’s only human nature for them to interpret a “no comment” as “you’re hiding something,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management (2016). “There are a lot of ways to say very little without compromising legal matters, while still appearing responsive to those seeking more information.”

If you don’t already have a protocol in place, here are some tips for developing a crisis communications plan:

  • Communicate reliable and updated information about the incident, casualties, and the location and status of evacuees.
  • Include points of contact for emergency assistance and other relevant measures to facilitate recovery.
  • Set up an officially designated toll-free telephone number, as well as a social media site for continued updates on the incident and recovery.
  • Coordinate with law enforcement for updated and accurate information.
  • Provide information to employees not present at the site and let them know if they need to report to work.
  • Make sure evacuees’ families are informed as soon as possible about their whereabouts and health status.
  • Appoint someone, such as a public relations person, to keep an eye on social media and identify, remove or refute fake or misleading tweets and posts.
  • Consider using a multi-modal mass notification system that sends messages to multiple devices – both mobile and stationary – to increase notification delivery in a defined geographic area.

Social media has become enormously influential, and often useful, in times of crisis. A good example is when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012, killing 72 people and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.

“Twitter was the true spokesperson of the day in Hurricane Sandy,” Phelps said. “It provided people on the street the opportunity to post real-time information, pictures, and video of events happening right at that moment. It allowed those in need to post requests for assistance, like help with evacuation, and it allowed emergency responders and government officials a chance to reach out with critical information to those who needed it most.”

However, it can be dangerous to rely solely on one form of communication. During a crisis, communications should be diversified and still include the old way of doing things, such as keeping critical information in notebooks.

When electricity, phones (and your speed dial phone numbers) and cell towers fail, it helps to have your most critical information on paper, Phelps said. “Sounds old-fashioned, I suppose, but many people in the East were hard pressed to contact people after their phones died. Keeping critical phone numbers, account information, and other important data in a paper format is incredibly helpful.”

Does your department have a crisis communication checklist? Do you document on paper and electronically?

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