If a disaster occurs in your community, you will need to work quickly and decisively to ensure that the information that gets to the public is accurate, balanced and useful to the people who need it most. Good crisis communications is the result of a clear and well-developed media relations policy. If you want the headlines to reflect an accurate story, you will need to understand what drives them and how you can establish a beneficial and positive relationship with the press.
A good crisis communications plan will ensure that your organization is prepared to get information out in a way that is helpful to all stakeholders. While you cannot anticipate every potential crisis, most well-constructed plans are flexible enough to address a range of needs.
Begin by considering what sorts of crises are most likely in your community. What will be the potential impact on the people and businesses within your community? For instance, a city in the Midwest can expect periodic severe snow storms. These may cause power outages and leave roads impassable for a period of time. Cities in the southeastern part of the US should be prepared for hurricanes in the warmer half of the year. Areas throughout the country should have plans for manmade disasters that include mass shooter events.
Create policies regarding who should talk to the press and what sort of language they should use. For instance, an ongoing policy against speculation protects against someone inadvertently making inflammatory comments. For the best results, have established channels of communication so that messaging remains clear and consistent. This should include policies about the use of both personal and official social media accounts.
Establishing a spokesperson before a crisis is a key part of good management. This person should cultivate positive relationships with members of the press on an ongoing basis. When a disaster occurs, people in the media are most likely to reach out to the individuals in government who they already know.
In today’s high-speed digital environment, it’s hard to delay a story. Instead, people from your organization should be ready to communicate with the press very quickly when a disaster occurs. However, how you communicate is as important as when.
Transparency is a must if you are going to win the trust of the press and the public who you both serve. When possible, answer questions honestly and succinctly. If you do not have the requested information, it is okay to admit that. Let the questioner know that you will research the answer and get back to them.
Always remember who the stakeholders are. If there is damage to property or people have been injured or killed, keep messaging compassionate and focused on the victims. People will want reassurance that those in positions of responsibility are doing whatever is necessary to ameliorate any harm.
One of the toughest tests of crisis communications is handling aggressive questioning and negative coverage. When something goes wrong, it is not uncommon for the press to ask questions in a way that can feel combative or even hostile. Keeping a cool head during all communications can lead to better outcomes in the end.
Do not become defensive when confronted with aggressive questioning. This can only lead to negative depictions in the press. Instead, remain factual and neutral. You have a job to do just like the members of the press do. Remember your responsibility to the people in your community and do not take harsh questioning personally.
Resist the temptation to assign blame for a crisis. This is unlikely to make those in the press more sympathetic. Instead, focus on the fact that something negative has occurred, the impact of the crisis and what your organization’s role is in coping with this crisis.
Media relations during a crisis can be a difficult and sometimes thankless job. However, dealing with a crisis in a way that is transparent and decisive can mean preserving trust in your organization. By dealing with crisis communications well, you can help keep the headlines positive and guide your community through a crisis intact.