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Advice Unlimited

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

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