Communicating After (and Before) the Storm

​Public Safety Leaders Talk Crisis Communication

The aftermath of the shooting of several law enforcement officers in Florence last October left a grieving community stunned at the magnitude of the event. Veteran Florence police officer Sgt. Terrence Carraway was killed, and Florence County Sheriff's Investigator Farrah Turner would die of her injuries several weeks later. Five additional officers were wounded.

Communication panel during Hometown Legislative Action Day
Heather Hoopes-Matthews led the crisis communication panel during
Hometown Legislative Action Day with Florence Police Chief Allen Heidler,
Conway Fire Chief Phillip "Le" Hendrick Jr. and Darlington Police Chief Kelvin Washington.

In discussing the communication efforts that took place during the first hours of what he described as a fluid and convoluted event, Florence Police Chief Allen Heidler said that his very first messages were for his officers and their families at the hospital, conveying how the department would be caring for them.

Following that critical step, and still in the hours after the event, he said he knew that "as a representative of the city, that I had to get in front of the cameras," alongside Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone and Mayor Stephen Wukela, getting information out to the community they serve every day.

Heidler spoke as part of a panel on crisis communication during the Municipal Association's Hometown Legislative Action Day. He noted that communication at such times is vital and his department prepares for it, but the unimaginable, if it happens, can still be an extraordinary test. He lost a friend that he and his department had known for decades, and the national media picked up the story quickly. Balancing the need for open communication and the needs of the investigation, Heidler said the department received positive feedback for being upfront.

"You have to make snap and appropriate decisions because this is something that has affected your entire community, the state and the nation," he said.

Conway Fire Chief Phillip "Le" Hendrick Jr. also participated in the forum, describing his department's experiences with disaster communication going back to the 2015 flood. Hurricane Matthew showed them the importance of social media communication, but he said that social media's focus on individuals created different perspectives and variations of information.

When Hurricane Florence arrived, they wanted to push a single, "clear and concise" message. During the 21-day emergency period, Hendrick said the City of Conway Facebook page reached 1.4 million people.

A key challenge for the Conway Fire Department was that the hurricane dumped an extreme amount of rain upriver, so that much of the flooding arrived well after the storm itself. Hendrick described the advance flood modeling projections, which guided the department as it determined which neighborhoods to warn. Many locations had no previous record of flooding, which added to the challenge.

"Honestly, because we were so far ahead of most of the concerns or questions, we didn't have a lot of complaints," he said. "There was a lot of positivity back to us for being so transparent."

Panelist Kelvin Washington, the police chief of Darlington, discussed the importance of having a police or fire chief — the person whose knowledge comes directly from heavy involvement in responding to the event — be the one who personally provides initial information.

Washington also spoke about the difficulties of recruiting and retaining officers in the current economic climate. He advised the audience to accept that potential recruits are looking at multiple departments, since many have openings, and reminded them that candidates now at the beginning of their careers are scrutinizing benefits packages closely. Agencies, he said, need to be creative in determining what can make recruitment work for them and should pay careful attention to what they learn in exit interviews.

"We're going to have to become a lot more competitive in our recruiting," said Washington.

Listen to the audio of the crisis communication session and other 2019 Hometown Legislative Action Day sessions.