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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Aftermath of 9/11: Crisis Communications is now Interactive

It used to be that most government organizations had a crisis communications plan that would be pulled out and reviewed maybe once a year, that was relatively static and standard in its contents. The plan provided guidance on calling a press conference to update reporters who would in turn update the public on the process and progress being made in dealing with the crisis or disaster at hand, creating press releases and other briefing materials, etc. The process was largely reactive, rather than proactive, and definitely the information went one-way – from the public affairs representatives and government officials to the public.

No more.

Today, public outreach is interactive. Whether we as government public affairs organizations are ready for this or not, citizens are involved and engaged in information sharing – especially in a crisis or disaster. If we are to do our jobs and stay on top of ensuring the public gets accurate information in a timely manner, we must be much more proactive, flexible, and connected.

In fact, it is even more important in today’s interactive environment for us to be responsive and responsible – to ensure the public gets accurate information and the guidance they need to stay safe in a crisis. We as public information specialists must be proactive, leveraging the many communication channels our public will look to for information, guidance, reassurance. We must incorporate these new tools – along with traditional communication channels – to ensure we are reaching all of our different citizen groups with timely, accurate, clearly understandable information and guidance through the communication channels they use and trust.

I believe it is also our responsibility to be vigilant against misinformation – rumors being spread, panic being encouraged, because of some source of information that has it wrong but has the public’s attention. This requires awareness and monitoring of those sources of information that impact our target audience, and rapid response capabilities to correct misinformation and set the record straight authoritatively and calmly. We are not only the providers of information; we also set the tone for response and reaction by providing, proactively before people begin to panic, specific information to the most basic and important questions: how bad is it? Will my family be safe? What do we need to do to be safe? Will our basic needs be taken care of?

Several of the news reports after the East Coast earthquake on August 23 joked that a lot of people did exactly what they were not supposed to do – they ran into the streets rather than seeking safety in their homes or buildings. They panicked. They had never experienced this before. Where should they turn for information? One of the greatest challenges with a crisis is that it happens unexpectedly, and the worst of it is immediate. There’s minimal preparation time, and the more terrible and frightening the crisis, the harder it is to get people to listen to any source of information, much less an ‘official’ message. The best we can do is plan for the worst, prepare now for what might happen so that when disaster strikes, we are well trained to jump into action and reach out to reassure, provide guidance and calm fears. And understand that our communication must accommodate our citizens responding and communicating with each other as well as with us, in an interactive, collaborative environment.

As the stewards of communication, it is our responsibility to understand this new dynamic, prepare for it and integrate this new reality into our planning and preparation, to ensure we are leveraging all communication channels and participants effectively to ensure everyone has accurate facts and the information they need to stay safe.

Welcome to the new world of crisis communications.

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a WOSB public outreach/strategic communications firm serving government organizations and IT companies, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Irene Inspires Proactive Communication from Federal, State and Local Officials

Disasters happen. How quickly and appropriately those in authority respond to those disasters can make the difference between a frightening but manageable situation, versus a full-out catastrophe on many levels. It seems that government officials at federal and state and local levels took to heart the lessons from Katrina, and made sure that as Hurricane Irene captured the nation’s attention, they were in front of the storm – with their communications and their preparedness efforts.

The speed and precision you exhibit when communicating with your public correlates directly with how bad the crisis will be – when you have a solid plan in place you can move faster to calm fears, negate rumors, and build trust with your audience. By placing your clients' needs first in dealing with a crisis you are more likely to survive a crisis situation. The mantra before Irene from many government organizations was the focus on how they could help their citizens: ‘we can’t stop the winds or the floods, but we can move to protect our citizens and save lives.’ Some felt the mandatory evacuations in some places was a bit of overkill, but NJ Governor Christie, for one, clearly stated, “no regrets.” Many followed that pattern of better safe than sorry, and most found calm acceptance from their constituents. There was even patient acceptance that the power company crews ‘were doing their best,’ as people were consistently updated through various media sources on the battle against power outages by crews working 24/7, and supplemented with traveling crews from other parts of the country.

Clearly, some things were done right. Is your organization in good shape for the next time a calamity impacts your operations? How up to date is your crisis communications plan?

The Calm Before the Storm

Before a disaster occurs, your priority and top-level goal is to prevent or minimize a crisis situation before it escalates. Many government organizations are reviewing their crisis communications plans and putting Public Information Centers (PICs) in place. These organizations understand preparedness is vital to successful crisis communications and have gone through the necessary procedures to be ready when disaster strikes.

There are key steps to preventing or minimizing a crisis. To begin, prepare a plan that dictates the roles of the leaders on the crisis communications team. This plan designates the makeup of the confidential working group that will deal with the crisis, and defines the logistics of immediately assembling this group to assess the situation should a crisis occur. Once the leaders are in place, determine key facts surrounding the disaster; including: What is at stake? Who is the audience? What are your immediate and longer-term communication needs? What needs are exclusive to this type of disaster? Understanding the scope of the situation allows both primary and secondary prevention to be considered. Primary prevention averts incidents from occurring, while secondary prevention thwarts an incident from escalating by swiftly addressing issues made public.

An effective crisis communications plan will provide the processes to help you anticipate challenges, recognize your vulnerabilities, and evaluate and assess potentially damaging scenarios. It provides the tools to thoughtfully define the parameters of a crisis - what's the worst news that could come out of a possible disaster - and the best way to prevent and/or manage such a scenario.

The more you prepare during the calm, the faster you can get ahead of the storm when a disaster hits. As our constituents become more connected and communication tools become more interconnected and interactive, the more important an effective crisis communications plan becomes. This plan helps your team navigate rough waters effectively, to minimize panic, reassure your audiences, and protect sensitive sources. A delicate balancing act - but one Public Affairs and Public Relations professionals must engage in more and more frequently. And we all want to be able to say, confidently and calmly, at the end of the storm: ‘no regrets.’

Sandy Evans Levine is President of Advice Unlimited, a Woman-Owned Small Business public outreach/strategic communications firm serving government organizations and IT companies, based in Olney, MD. Ms. Levine can be reached at