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Most crises in an organization are predictable and can have a response plan. For anti-corruption institutions, it is often the reality or appearance of unethical behavior of leaders and staff. For healthcare or emergency service agencies, it is a life-threatening situation. For regulatory agencies, it is often the failure of a bank, insurance, or financial institution that should have been monitored better.

Begin Crisis Plans

Sometimes, this is easy to identify scenarios that threaten the organization or institution.  Risk mitigation strategies can be implemented, and a media language can be developed well in advance.   For example, anti-corruption institutions can often be described as politically motivated, so having a staff policy to avoid campaign rallies or not posting photos of politicians at unofficial events is a leading practice in risk mitigation.

When lives or critical services are at risk, more elaborate plans could include the following:

  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for every potential threat are organized in a threat book of agreed steps for each institution.
  • Run through of disasters in a practice setting, say a train accident, where emergency responders and the government simulate how to handle this with volunteer victims.
  • Red teams comprise trusted outsiders who devise ways to sabotage the institution or services and send a report to the leadership. This is a creative way to determine threats the organization has not considered.

Time matters in a crisis, so there is a plan and, when possible, response language created in advance. A crisis team often involves decision-makers, experts, and communicators. For communicators—there need to be assignments for those who handle the following:

Communication Assignments

Communicator Point Person: Generally, it is helpful to have a communicator focus on the crisis and little else.  Leaders are in decision-making mode, and one person needs to drive the communications effort and support leaders who are inundated with requests.

Internal or Stakeholder Communications:  For a small agency, this can be someone to reach out to employees with approved talking points and guidance on media, contacting staff members they know or find on social media. During a health crisis, internal communication could include a larger audience of hospital staff and healthcare agencies and providers.  Ideally, you want front-line workers, allies, and stakeholders to have the same information and guidance for the public to avoid contradictions and confusion.

Support staff:  With the volume of inbound requests, real-time news, and social media monitoring, it is essential to consider whether the current communication department can handle this or whether additional people are assigned from other departments temporarily. This is more about the timing and volume question and less about whether the team is competent. If the staff member responding on social media to citizens about a crisis is answering the phone, the more impactful job of communicating to the public is not getting done. It is helpful to have people assigned to this support role in advance to ensure everything is clear.

First 24 Hours

The first day of a crisis is the most difficult. Crisis teams meet and respond, communications are incoming and outgoing, and rumors are circulating. It is helpful to include the following in a plan:

Statements in the form of a quote or quotes.  Press releases often take longer, and it is easier for social media to make an immediate 2-3 sentence comment that can go everywhere quickly.

If there are instructions for citizens to protect their health, avoid certain areas, or remain cautious, this is the time to do so.  Overcommunicating this is important because citizens are going through a range of emotions and uncertainty.

Announce a briefing.  As the media and outlets call for comments, it is easier to funnel them all to cover a public briefing later in the day. “We will respond to you at 1 p.m. with a briefing of the Mayor, the Health Director, and the Police Chief with the most up-to-date information on the crisis.”  The timing of this should be when there is some information to share, but not waiting for everything to be clarified.  The crisis teams that remain too long without a statement will have media commentary and rumors fill the silence, and the leadership will be accused of hiding.  This structure is “here is what we know, here is what we don’t know, and here is how we will find out for everyone.” If it is an emerging crisis, it is possible to provide an update from the podium each hour with a statement. “Here is new information we can share as of 14:00.….”.

Internal communications should be kicked into high gear, and the existing statements should be pushed to office staff, allies, and stakeholders. Impacted people will confirm with those they know are getting the exact information they are hearing.

Crisis Messages

Each crisis’s messages differ on the circumstances. Still, all suggest that addressing the loss of life or property requires empathy—leaders who acknowledge a terrible situation and show the emotions anyone would feel.  If appropriate, visit family members or the site and clarify that people’s well-being comes first.

Those who see or are impacted by a crisis often go through a range of emotions that may lead to rumors or behaviors that are difficult to counter.  For this reason, leaders need to simplify the information, repeat it often, and over-communicate in ways that seem to be excessive but are not for those in the audience. This is an easy-to-read explainer from the Center for Disease Control for more information on understanding psychology in a crisis.