The most basic requirement of crisis communications is to actually communicate, even if you are letting people know the status quo. Silence in a crisis is always deadly.
Your silence, in the form of a static website and/or unreturned voicemails or emails, will be taken to mean you are fiddling as Rome burns. You must continually practice outreach and use multiple platforms simultaneously: website updates, and links to those via social media and email lists.
Also consider the power of live video, such as Facebook Live, to transmit information from officials to concerned parties who may not be able to physically access a public meeting.
The Harvey Flood and Sewage Crisis
Let’s take a recent real-life example: Hurricane Harvey, which affected millions of people in multiple counties. Our Houston-area subdivision (outside of any incorporated municipality) was submerged. The neighborhood homeowners association (HOA) quickly set up a closed Facebook group for neighbors only to communication the emergency conditions and response. After the Coast Guard and volunteer boaters left, many evacuees wanted to hear from those holding down the fort in a handful of dry homes what was happening. How much has the water receded, when can we come back, are there looters?, etc.
This Facebook group continues to serve the neighbors as their HOA board gives them updates and they provide each other with useful links and information.
Now, for a case study in how to improve communications, especially if you are providing essential services, such as sewer service, water utilities and garbage collection, which here is the responsibility of a private company: a municipal utility district. Because I don’t want anyone to construe this blog as shaming, I am not naming the individual MUD. Instead, this is more of a constructive criticism, showing what they did right and what more they can do to improve communications.
In an industrialized nation, water and sewer service tend to be utilities people take for granted. But, when there is a problem, such as 50 inches of rain inundating a region and submerging wastewater treatment plants, residents suddenly take notice. A gurgling toilet can be a canary in the coalmine that there is great potential for a horrible disaster; when the wastewater pumps stop working and there is nowhere for all the sewage to go anyway due to immense flooding, at any moment toilets could start backflowing raw sewage – and lots of it – into homes and businesses.
Now, you have people’s attention! They will go to your website, call your office, call their local politicians. This is where updating and organizing updates are imperative.
case study: refinery fire updates
In a past career, I covered oil industry news and from time to time, that involved covering fatal and near-fatal explosions at a few refineries. The best-case example was a refining company that experienced a massive fire that severely burned employees responding to an explosion. The fire was visible from outside the refinery gates and in the first instance, a company spokesman immediately called reporters back to describe the fire’s location and emergency response, and started issuing statements via email.
That was within the first hour or so. Soon enough, the public relations team sent an update to their listserv for reporters and simultaneously provided the same information in a press release posted to the news section of the website. Each subsequent update was numbered, dated and timestamped.
When you implement this approach, it makes it easy for the party disseminating the information and for its audience to keep track of what information is being given and when. Each statement should contain any old information that remains true and add the new developments in a fluid situation at the top. I recommend bolding the new information and providing the background information again in regular font.
give people what they want: valid information
At the water utility meeting, residents asked why the website was not updated each day during the crisis and a manager responded because there was no new information. A well intentioned, but incorrect answer. In the midst of a crisis, always create new posts to the website, even if you can only state the status quo.
I repeat, reiterate the status quo with the new date and time. Something along the lines of, “we are continuing to repair the X, leaving Y without service. We do not yet have a precise ETA for normal operations.” This way, people know you are doing something and that this is indeed still the latest information.
When I called after two days of silence, the person answering the phone gave three inconsistent answers: your subdivision has no service because it is still flooded, your subdivision was never affected, and something else confusing. Whoever answers the phone must have current and correct information. Period. Don’t leave an employee in the lurch this way. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the callers, who are paying customers.
Outreach is golden
Write your updates to address multiple stakeholders, such as users of your service, any local officials who are also fielding questions about you and your regulatory authorities.
Find partners within your stakeholders who themselves can share your updates via social media. For instance, during the sewer service crisis, each subdivision had individuals serving as communications liaisons for their own neighborhoods’ private social media groups. It is better to give them the information than let neighborhood social media groups discuss you with speculation.
Fill the gap. Give them updates. They could become your advocates. Your silence might spur antagonism. Instead, let social media be your helper.
In addition, make sure all the contact info on your website is current. Which phone numbers are listed? Do they still go to the correct department? Is the email listed dormant or active?
To be proactive, run an internal drill. Have employees play the role of information seekers and see how they rate the basics of your website. Test the phone numbers and emails. Have the real response teams answer questions and see how comfortable they are in crisis communications, as opposed to regular customer service.
Appoint a point-person to coordinate internally on information gathering with key personnel. Make sure you have a back-up person for each role. Use a spreadsheet to lay out these roles and responsibilities.
Once you implement these steps, you should feel prepared for the next crisis.
For more information, contact communications consultant Katharine Fraser.