Communicating in the Crisis

​The question is never "if," but "when."

Every city will face a crisis, maybe one that's unprecedented. Residents will want information, and the local media will likely be on scene demanding answers.

It's going to be a difficult, possibly painful time for city staff, but there are many steps to take before, during and after that can make the process smoother and help everyone stay calm.

Before the crisis

Designate a capable media contact. Ensure that all city officials know to refer questions to this person.

Ideally, this person is accessible, well-spoken and knowledgeable. The person should also have regular contact with the media, which builds trust, and should cultivate a reputation for providing responses within a reasonable timeframe. Reporters are well aware of who has good information. Like everyone else, they have less time to get answers during a major breaking event.

Even when multiple sources are providing information, ideally as part of a formal crisis communications team, ask all media queries to flow through one contact who can ensure all questions are answered accurately and consistently. The contact should not be a police or fire chief who will face other critical roles in a disaster. Also, keep alternates in place for when the main contact isn't available.

Make sure everyone who will be part of crisis communications has current contact information.
This can include a list of crisis team members and alternates with phone numbers. It can also include necessary passwords for the city website and social media accounts.

Consider preparing a "dark website."
This is a prebuilt webpage which can take over for your website or become prominently displayed on your website during a crisis. It allows the city to take charge and make itself the best source of up-to-date information. It also helps the city address rumors or inaccurate information.

Prepare and rehearse.
Problems often become emergencies because there was no planning ahead for the possibility of an emergency. Running dress rehearsals for events like natural disasters or other life-threatening events can help city officials think through issues and see where procedural problems could bubble up.

Once the crisis begins

Keep employees in the loop.
The best policy is to get information to city staff and council before it's released to the media, or at least at the same time. If the situation warrants, city leaders should call a staff meeting or conference call to provide the information which will allow staff to work effectively.

Give a statement.
Crises, especially law enforcement crises, often involve sensitive subjects and require a thoughtful, careful response. There is often a natural tendency to avoid being forthcoming in order to protect victims and investigations. Without real information, rumor and speculation can thrive.

With a genuine effort at keeping people informed, the city can position itself as the best source of information. Residents want communication that is complete, up to date and honest. Consider including background information; a sense of how the city will proceed, investigate or track the situation; and information on how residents will be impacted by the crisis.

Comments like "no comment" or "we have no information," are not helpful statements, so don't use them.
When the public reads or hears "no comment," they can easily assume the city has something to hide. Going ahead with the information that can be reasonably released, even when the whole story isn't available yet, helps to maintain trust. These statements can help officials avoid "no-commenting" to the media in a developing situation:

  • "I don't have an answer for that yet. We've just learned of the situation and are working to get more complete information."
  • "We're still in the process of bringing the situation under control, so I cannot speculate on the cause of the incident."
  • "We're preparing a statement/putting together information on that now. I should have something to give you shortly."

Use restraint. Avoid discussing currently unknown issues and sensitive information. Don't speculate, accept blame or make promises.
This is the flip side of being forthright. Everyone who speaks on behalf of a city should be ready for anything they say to appear in print or broadcast. Act as if everything is on the record and don't ask to go off the record.

Constituents might demand immediate fixes like government action or payments, but don't make any affirmative statements prematurely. Any liability will take time to determine. City officials, including elected officials who feel pressure to get things done, should not immediately make promises, especially since the city may not even be the responsible party.

Make sure communication is serving the public interest and is appropriate to the situation.
The safety and well-being of the people involved is the top priority. Once these needs are met, 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. The long-term health of the city or town depends not only on an official resolution of a crisis, but also on an effective resolution in the court of public opinion. It's also important to avoid blowing minor incidents out of proportion or allowing others to do so.

After the crisis

Be ready to give updates as needed.
Expect the story to have legs for some time after the initial crisis has passed. Residents and news outlets will have questions about long-term impacts, the ongoing safety of those involved and any investigations or criminal charges to come out of the event.

Debrief city staff on communications efforts.
Assess whether media was available and prepared. Is there a better process for handling questions? Were the channels of communication with the public adequate? Talking about these issues honestly and working on areas of needed improvement will improve the city response to the next crisis.