Communications and Emergency Response: Where Do I Start?

If you work in local government then, chances are, you are going to be part of an emergency response. Having led communications for 11 federally-declared disasters in my former municipality (and helping out on a few more as a consultant), I can attest that working through a crisis is one of the most stressful, time-demanding aspects of the job. But it can also be one of the most rewarding.

Even if you and your team do everything right, there will still be those who analyze and criticize your actions and decisions. That should not keep you from doing all the right things, first and foremost of which, is to have a plan of action before the crisis begins. So where do you start? Read on, fellow responders, effective crisis management help is here!

Identify the crisis communications response team
Think about who needs to be part of your communications response team during a crisis that, by the way, could go on for days or even weeks. If you are lean on staffing, this is where you (ahem) recruit what you need. I recommend an IT whiz or two to update the website under your direction; social media posters also under your direction; two people that can trade off in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC); someone to shoot video and photos for posting to social media and website; plus, you who should be attached at the hip to the EOC director—who is usually the City Manager or CEO. Create a contact list of these people, including emails and phone numbers, and keep it handy for all (electronically and on paper or laminated wallet card).

Select and train spokespersons
Who will be the official “voice” of the organization in the event of a crisis? Keep in mind that this person may vary depending on the situation. Usually it is the City Manager, GM or CEO. Who is the designated back-up for the spokesperson? It is best to figure that out ahead of time. Set aside media training time for these people; they will need it.

Develop communication processes and protocols
This is the heart of your pre-planning. Identify the different communication channels you will use to communicate in real time. Set up emergency/crisis templates for each. Be sure to create protocols for posting/pushing out information, especially the “triple check” to assure accuracy. Designate who will be responsible for making updates to each channel and make sure they understand their role and the process. This includes: social media posts, media statements, press conference scripts, and an online/real time blog for your website (the real time blog is highly effective, by the way, and don’t forget maps – people love them!)

Identify the chain of command. Who reviews and approves communications prior to them going out? I recommend a “triple check” policy that assures accurate, vetted information is released. Having approved procedures in place, in advance is critical to effective response. Don’t forget that you may not have electricity. How will you communicate if the lights go out? Be ready.

Practice and Drill. Revise. Practice and Drill Again.
Identify the most likely crisis scenarios that could occur in your organization and prepare step-by-step responses to address them. These could include: natural disasters, active shooter situation, criminal activity by leadership or a staffer, bomb in a public place, data breach, etc.

  • Figure out which communication channels you will need for the different scenarios.
  • Conduct drills to help team members get used to moving quickly and efficiently, while also working together.
  • When you drill, actually draft communications and conduct mock interviews.
  • Practice and drill, revise as needed, and then practice and drill again at a later date. This will be time well spent and will give the team a greater level of confidence.
  • Bonus points if your organization does a table top exercise during which your communications team drills with other members of the EOC.

Good luck!