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Be Ready to Communicate in a Crisis

When a city government encounters a crisis, everything happens quickly.

Residents want information and media representatives on the scene want answers. The chaos and the heightened emotions can make the event difficult for municipal staff.

Even so, local elected officials have a number of steps they can take before, during and after a crisis to help everyone stay calm.

Before the crisis

Designate a reliable media contact, and make sure all city officials know to refer questions to this person.
The media contact should be a person who is knowledgeable, well-spoken, accessible, and ideally has regular contact, and therefore some trust, with the media. Even when multiple sources are providing information, ask all media queries to flow through one contact who can ensure all questions are answered accurately and consistently.

Ideally, the contact should not be a police or fire chief who have other critical roles in a disaster. Also, keep alternates in place for when the main media contact is not available.

Take time to rehearse.
Problems can grow into emergencies because there was no planning for the possibility of an emergency. Running 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 aware of what's happening.
Ideally, city council and staff should receive information before it's released to the media, or at least at the same time. In some cases, 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 often involve sensitive subjects, especially if they are law enforcement situations. There may be a temptation to avoid being reasonably forthcoming out of a desire to protect victims and investigations. However, in the absence of real information, rumor and speculation can thrive.

The city can position itself as the best source of information by making an honest effort at providing up-to-date information. Consider including background information, a sense of how the city will proceed or investigate, and information on how residents or businesses might be affected by the crisis.

Do not use comments like "no comment" or "we have no information."
When officials say "no comment," residents can easily assume the city has something to hide. Going ahead with the information that can be released, even when the whole story isn't available yet, helps to maintain trust. Here are some alternatives to "no comment:"

  • "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."

After the crisis

Be ready to give updates.
The story will probably stay alive for a while after the initial crisis has passed. Residents and the media will have questions about long-term effects, the ongoing safety of those involved and any investigations or criminal charges to come out of the event.

Debrief city staff on communications efforts.
Was the media contact 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's response to the next crisis.