blueprint for crisis communications in local gov

A Blueprint for Crisis Communications in Local Government

The willful suspension of disbelief is what makes everyday living feel normal and safe for most people whose jobs aren’t focused on calculating risk and danger, and who live in locations of relative stability. But those conditions can change suddenly, and for those working in local government, it pays to forecast worst-case scenarios — a dark task but one which can deliver hope, care and brightness to those in need when a crisis comes to pass.

‘Thoughts and prayers,’ as the saying goes, have never been enough to prevent the tragic events that afflict too many of our communities over time. When that happens, it calls for a more tangible toolkit, and public safety teams spring into action — including some whose everyday jobs might not at first thought seem emergency-minded. When crisis strikes, civic digital teams can serve a pivotal role in disseminating crucial safety information and convening a community of resilience through recovery.

Advance visioning is crucial to making sure you’re prepared to help when the unthinkable takes place.

Not if, but when

The emergency managers who work tirelessly to anticipate and prepare for crisis know that this axiom is central to their strategy: it’s not if an emergency happens, but when. Barring conditions of scientific impossibility, lack of precedent is no guarantee that an emergency may not take place in the future. Local government officials will find themselves at the center for a range of crisis types, which include:

  • Weather & natural disasters — list by feasible type in your region (heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.)
  • Human-sourced violence — active shooters, bombs, etc.
  • Health — outbreaks, food safety, chemical
  • Public services — roads, power outages, water supply

An emergency toolkit for government

Most houses should have an emergency kit stashed somewhere safe and accessible. You hopefully have one nearby: first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, hand-crank radio, blankets, and other important supplies. You should have a safety plan for how you’ll communicate with your family, where you’ll meet, and potential relocation routes (if you don’t have a kit like this, you can request an emergency preparedness kid from the Red Cross).

Now think about how you’d plan this for an entire government agency. Does your team have contingency plans for how the chain of command and the flow of information will work, including if certain members are unavailable? During the Boston marathon attacks in 2013, members of our own team were running the race. But a plan was already in place so that communication could flow no matter what, and infrastructure was already secured so that as social media director, I could access any and all city-related accounts securely to message and amplify emergency information. The time to consolidate access to digital assets must happen long before an event — not during.

Everyday engagement is emergency preparedness

During a crisis, you’ll provide optimal value by being a timely and accurate responder. But in the moment, you’ll start with the resources you have. Start by making sure you’ve built the most important foundation: a robust and trusting community. Do: commit to an everyday effort that is useful, resonant and responsive. Don’t: expect to activate underutilized channels into crisis communication powerhouses if you’ve neglected to optimize them for everyday use.

How to build trusted relationships on social media

Examples of ways you can build trusting relationships to help you leverage a stronger emergency recovery together include:

  • Maintaining a high standard for daily response on community improvement channels (311, Twitter, etc.)
  • Host focused digital engagement events like Twitter chats and AMAs to augment offline access points and conversations
  • Create content strategies that highlight transparency into the operations of leadership & systems – for example: video messages from the Mayor, a snow ops behind-the-scenes via infographic, video or other dissection.
  • Create a style guide that crystallizes your voice and visual identity so that is well established in advance across all channels.

Doing so means that when you’ve set your house in proverbial order, you’ll be tapped into a trusting community of people who will be allies in listening and amplification – cutting down on misinformation and supporting clarity during times of elevated need.

Social Media Crisis Communications: simple and shareable

During an emergency, government communicators should focus on providing signals in the emerging noise, and seeding vetted information to the community you’ve built leading up to this. An easy way to share information while cutting down on errors and typos is a message embedded within a social graphic. These can serve a few functions:

  • Emergency updates and contact information
  • Key quotes for morale boost
  • Visual anchors to supplement key speeches, such as by a mayor or police/fire chief
  • Amplifying recovery resources, such as funds and moments of remembrance

A bonus to creating self-contained graphics is that during events that can reach global scale, it may become impossible for a small organization to answer every question. Providing one graphic and asking the community to share is a more efficient strategy, especially if that message is based off high-level analysis of the most pressing and numerous questions and needs being expressed.

Using the anticipated functions we’ve discussed above, consider creating templates in advance that provide a visual anchor for a series of needs. Check out Canva for a great, web-based graphics creation tool.

For recurring events that mimic emergency operations, such as snowstorms, in which a core of key instructions is consistent between events, consider developing a “tweet bank” of pre-scripted messaging already drafted and ready to schedule, and which can be supplemented with unique information. Remember: the time to reinvent the wheel is never during crisis, but planned foundations can create space for further innovation.

Partnerships: With a little help from our friends

Think about the kind of partnerships and teamwork that might support a community recovery effort, and start brainstorming now. When crisis hits, will your servers support a potentially national or global visitor load? Are there platforms or outside organizations who might be great partners for strengthening your recovery effort? Better to set up those alliances now than scramble for contacts after the fact. Some technology partners may be able to offer additional support for events like these. Others may be great to have on the line just for a signal boost.

Plan on tracking your digital conversations at a large scale, and make sure you have a solution in place that transcends basic human monitoring. A reply stream that might deliver double digits on a standard Tuesday may stream by at a new scale as you watch helplessly when your city is plunged into a major crisis. Create internal and external relationships and structures that will allow you to assess at a big data level to identify key needs.

Recovering from a crisis: Returning to a new normal

Transitioning with grace from active emergency mode through recovery and beyond is a balancing act. Depending on the nature of the crisis, it could be as simple as declaring the emergency over: a snowstorm or heatwave, for example.

But for especially tragic events, especially those involving loss of life, this can be transformative; grief lingers, safety questions may loom, and it may be impossible to return to certain activities and expectations in the same way. At the same time, the world continues to turn, and with it, the daily cycles of a living city: community events, public works services. A phased approach can offer a sensitive reintroduction as time begins to pass. As human as we must be to one another, so should our approach to technology and its uses.

Even as careful reintroduction of everyday messaging becomes appropriate, early messages should remain sensitive and reserved. No one has flipped a switch. Maintain sensitivity and continue to listen to community sentiment, and meet the community where they are. At this point, removing emergency alert signifiers on the home page, for example, may now be appropriate. Inquiries into support channels may persist, and continuing to weave information about how to help into all digital channels will be appreciated by all.

Some post-crisis questions:

Was an official fund created to support recovery? Community members will likely seek information about how to contribute over time through the creation of unofficial events, so make it easy to access this information. Is there an ongoing digital channel where supporters can contribute, or leave caring messages?

Crisis Anniversaries

Remember that anniversaries are sensitive and important times for especially tragic events. Consider working this into advance planning.

For emergency managers who know that a crisis may be just around the corner, there’s reassurance in advance planning that can make the difference between a panicked scramble and deliberate plan activation. Constituents will benefit from this integrated strategy, which requires commitment to everyday digital excellence, combined with careful thinking during and following a major crisis.

If you want to talk about your social media crisis communications plan, contact Lindsay at Media Cause DotGov.