Tips for communicating in a crisis

When a crisis hits, it's not enough just to know logistics, such as how evacuation routes flow, where shelters are located or where supplies are stored. City officials must also be prepared to share information quickly and accurately with both residents and the news media.

South Carolina cities have endured crises of many kinds in just the past several years, ranging from police incidents to weather events. It's not a luxury to plan for communicating in a crisis; it's a must.

  • Anticipate problems. In many cases, a situation becomes an emergency only because it wasn't anticipated. While it may seem like a waste of time to try to anticipate anything bad that can happen, investing this time will pay off in the long run. Many cities run "table top" scenarios to get officials thinking about all the possibilities of what could happen in a particular situation.
  • Select the right spokesman/media contact. This person should be readily accessible, well-spoken, knowledgeable and already trusted by the media. Ideally the city's chosen spokesman is not someone, such as the fire or police chief, who would have another major role if disaster strikes. 
  • Keep it centralized. When reporters call during a crisis, they want accurate, factual information from a person who knows what's going on. In the midst of a crisis, a city may have many experts who need to weigh in on the situation. Asking all media calls to flow through a central contact person ensures all inquiries are taken care of quickly and accurately. This is especially true during crisis situations when it's chaotic and media deadlines are looming. All city officials should know who the designated spokesman is and refer any media calls. 
  • Assemble and organize resources. In a crisis, city officials need up-to-date and accessible information. Resource information may include a current list of crisis team members and alternates with work, cell and home telephone numbers; updated media lists; lists of emergency services such as fire, police, hospital and ambulance; and website and social media passwords. A previously designed stand-alone crisis response page on the city's website is an easy way to quickly get out timely information. It's also important to have this page duplicated on a server away from city hall in case power goes down or city hall becomes inaccessible.
  • Communicate with employees. The best policy is to get information to city staff and council before, or at least at the same time as, it's released to news media. If the situation warrants, city leaders should call a staff meeting/conference call to provide appropriate information on the circumstances of the situation. 
  • Don't immediately accept blame or make promises. If residents or businesses are calling for immediate remedies to a situation in the form of government actions or compensation, do not respond with any affirmative statements. Any liability over an incident will take time to determine. City officials, including elected officials, should not immediately promise to fix problems, especially since the city may not even be the responsible party.
  • Communicate with the media. Be proactive. In general, it is good to release information as quickly as possible. Comments should be of a general nature until all the facts are in, but then it is far better to get the full story out early. Sometimes reporters will be on the scene. In other situations, city officials will need to initiate contact. This should be done as soon as the basic facts are in hand. 
  • Give a statement. A formal statement or press conference should follow the initial contact, including any updated information and plans for investigating the incident or tracking the natural disaster. Reporters expect complete, honest information; background material; some indication of how the organization intends to proceed; information about the impact on residents; regular updates and post-crisis follow-up. If the national media has come to town, give the local media outlets the same information at the same time.
  • Be forthright and avoid the use of "no comment" whenever possible. When the public reads or hears "no comment," the natural assumption is that the entity the spokesman represents has something to hide. Having some comment, even if the whole story isn't available yet, keeps lines of communication open and maintains trust. The following may help avoid "no comment" during the process of information gathering:
  • "We've just learned about the situation and are trying to get more complete information now."

    "All our efforts are directed at bringing the situation under control, so I'm not going to speculate on the cause of the incident."

    "I'm not the authority on that subject. Let me have our Mr. Jones call you right back."

    "We're preparing a statement on that now. Can I email it to you in about two hours?"

  • Use restraint. On the other side of the issue, however, a city spokesperson should never tell a reporter anything he is unwilling to see in print. "Off the record" may mean different things to different publications, so don't rely on it.
  • Report your own bad news. Don't allow another source to inform the media first or start rumors. Monitoring social media is a critical part of maintaining control of the situation to ensure the city is the sole source of information regarding the incident or disaster. If someone airs concerns publicly on social media, respond promptly through the medium through which messages were received, keeping in mind that all comments can be shared and widely viewed.
  • Keep a log of media calls, and return calls as promptly as possible. A log can help in tracking issues being raised by reporters. It will also give city officials a record of which reporters closely followed the story in case of the need for follow-up.
  • Do the right thing. In any emergency situation, city leaders must always put the public interest first. The safety and well-being of the people involved is the top priority. Once safety has been restored, face the public and face the facts. Never try to minimize a serious problem or "smooth it over" in the hopes that no one will notice. Conversely, it's important to avoid blowing minor incidents out of proportion or allowing others to do so.
  • Debrief. After the crisis, city officials should make sure the communications efforts are part of any debriefing activity. Assess whether your primary spokesperson was available and prepared. Is there a better process for returning media calls? Were the channels of communication with the public adequate?

A word about lawyers and reporters in crisis situations:

  • Reporters and the editors they work for don't like mistakes. They build their reputations on being accurate and fair. In most news organizations, there's a lengthy process and a fair amount of paperwork involved when a reporter makes a mistake. If a reporter gets something factually wrong, ask for a correction.

  • Lawyers may sometimes insist on "no comment" as the immediate response, since legal issues often are involved in crises. City leaders must be able to balance legal issues with the public's right to know what's going on. The long-term health of the city or town depends not only on a legal resolution of a specific issue, but also on the effective resolution of a crisis in the court of public opinion.

"There has to be a fine balance between public opinion and liability," said Heather Ricard, director of Risk Management Services at the Municipal Association. "However, what that balance is will depend on the claim situation."