Public safety agencies were made to deal with crises—and their people are trained to respond quickly and effectively. But tactical response is only one part of crisis response. Often, agencies aren’t prepared to communicate and provide essential (or helpful) information to the media or the public. And when communication is lacking, trust suffers. The key to effectively handling crisis communications in public safety is responding in a timely and transparent manner—every time. Be the source and tell the story. If you don’t, there are others who will. At best, the information they provide won’t be the most accurate. At worst, the information they provide can be incredibly damaging to the safety of the community and the reputation of your agency.
In a recent webinar, “Crisis Communications: Who Is Telling Your Story?” public relations expert Tamrin Olden discusses common communications missteps and how agencies can be proactive in their communications strategy.
Make a Crisis Communications Plan
When making a crisis communications plan, determine the who, what and how of responding to an incident from a communications perspective—how you’ll approach providing information to the media and the public. First, identify the team members who will take the lead on crisis communication response and provide them with the proper training (more on that later). Who is on your communications team? Who needs to approve communications before they are shared publicly? What other stakeholders may need to receive communications before they’re released? Consider all involved stakeholders when determining your crisis communications plan.
Next, determine the goals of your communication plan. Place your key message at the center—what are you trying to get across? Everything in your communications response should emphasize your key message. How you write your message is also essential. Make sure you craft your message with clarity and with the goal of getting and keeping your audience’s attention throughout. Essentially, get the information out quickly and transparently. Don’t be afraid to issue corrections when needed and always monitor how your message is received based on the types of follow-ups you get or the response on social media. Be prepared to adjust as needed. It may even be wise to prepare templated messages for different types of incidents that you can easily update with unique information when the moment comes.
Build a reputation of transparency and accountability for your agency. Trust goes a long way when a crisis hits.
Finally, consider how you will disseminate and monitor your messaging. What channels will be most effective for your agency as you communicate regarding different types of incidents? Do you have an email distribution list for local media networks? What about a contact list for local elected officials and other community stakeholders? Will you post something on your agency’s website and/or social media profiles? Determine what distribution looks like for your community and the most effective ways to disseminate your message.
Train, Train, Train
All the planning in the world is only as good as the training you provide your personnel. Many agencies assign someone to be the public information officer (PIO) who has no experience and no specialized training. Then, when a crisis comes, communications fall apart because no one has the knowledge or skills necessary to get the information out clearly and effectively. First things first: Take the time to ensure your policies are up-to-date and in line with federal and state laws. This provides the foundation for your communications response, just as it provides the foundation for other agency operations. Then, make sure your communications team knows the policy and knows how to apply it.
While training your PIO and communications team is absolutely essential, they aren’t the only ones who will be communicating your messages to the media and the public. Recognize that any and all of your agency’s personnel may be the messengers. Personnel on-scene at an incident will likely be asked for information by members of the media or public. Do they know how to respond? Do they know what information they can and cannot give? This training should provide personnel with the knowledge of what they are legally able to provide and what they should legally withhold, as well as the skills to effectively interact with media at the scene. Training can (and should) be provided at every level, from the academy to field training to supervisory training.
It’s All About Trust
Communication and trust go hand in hand. If your communications aren’t building trust, you need to reevaluate the purpose of your messaging. Regularly share positive stories about the good work your agency does. Bring local media personnel into your agency and build relationships with them. Build a reputation of transparency and accountability for your agency. Trust goes a long way when a crisis hits. If you have demonstrated transparency, accountability and diligence in the past, your community will trust you to do the same in the future. Watch the on-demand webinar, “Crisis Communications: Who Is Telling Your Story?” to learn more.