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What's the Word? Necessary Elements in Crisis Communications

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label


Jim Sharp, AEGIS

Regardless of what it is you have to say, there has never been a better time for any person or organization to say it. There are more options available today than at any time in history to get your message out, and those options can spread your message faster, and to a larger audience, than ever before. Good deal, right? Yes, that’s absolutely a good deal, just as long as what you are saying and what your audience is hearing coincide. A larger potential audience can sometimes mean more possibilities for misinterpretation, and the speed with which we communicate with that larger audience means that incorrect or inaccurate information goes farther, faster, and is tougher to correct or retract.

Communication continues to be a primary concern in emergency and disaster response, but in many instances we get so caught up in the technical, tactical aspects of communication (use this network, buy that app, use this particular platform, try this new system, etc.) that we lose sight of the fact that, if your target audience does not understand what you are trying to tell them, the fact that they physically received your communication doesn’t really matter. To put that another way, how we say something often gets more attention than what we are saying – and it’s the “what” that counts.

Keeping in mind terms like crisis, emergency, and disaster mean different things to different people and in different contexts, there are essential elements of crisis communications that apply regardless of context.

First, if I had to pick one word to describe what’s most important in crisis communications – and it’s a question I hear a lot - that one word would be credibility. Credibility is everything. With it you can move mountains. Without it, your effectiveness is zero. The toughest part about credibility is it relies so very much on other factors. Everything you say, everything you do, what you wear, your physical surroundings, your speech patterns and mannerisms, your body language and hand gestures, everything either adds to or detracts from your credibility. Think about this – if a company CEO gets out of a chauffeured limousine, stands on stage in front of his employees and investors while wearing a $2500 Armani suit and a $12,000 Rolex watch, and announces layoffs because “things are bad” economically, does he have any credibility? What he is saying may be completely accurate, but without credibility, the accuracy of his statement will not matter to his audience. “But Jim,” you might be thinking, “a company layoff isn’t really a crisis or emergency.” Maybe not, unless you’re one of the folks being laid off . . .

But let’s talk about it in the context of disaster response. On January 9th, 2014, roughly 10,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into West Virginia’s Elk River, resulting in the water being deemed unusable (not just undrinkable, but unusable) for some 300,000 people in nine counties. Bottled water quickly became hard to find. Enter the President of Freedom Industries – the company from whose facility the chemicals had leaked. During a press conference on the evening of the second day of the response he stated, “…our intent is to be absolutely transparent…” and then, just minutes later, tried to end the press conference and walked away while reporters were still asking questions. The fact that one of his aids handed him a bottle of water during the press conference didn’t help his image, which of course affected his credibility.

You have to be right. That’s worth repeating: you have to be right – it’s your responsibility. You owe it to your target audience to furnish them with accurate information. From an emergency response perspective, you are going to expect people to take specific actions based on what you have told them. If the information given was wrong or inaccurate, the actions they take will not be what you had wanted or anticipated, and you’ll play catch-up from that point forward. And people will (rightfully) expect the information you’ve given them to improve or at least stabilize the situation. Your credibility (and your effectiveness) will suffer if it doesn’t. One of the most public examples was the report by CBS’s Scott Pelley in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Mr. Pelley had initially reported the shooter’s mother was a teacher at that school, and that the shooter had attacked her classroom. Neither piece of information was true, and to his credit Mr. Pelley very publicly admitted to and corrected those errors later, but the damage had already been done. I’m sure those of you with children know their teachers’ names. If you heard a report from a national media source saying that particular teacher’s classroom had been targeted in an attack, you would almost certainly think your child was a potential victim. Conversely, hearing of an attack on a different classroom, you might think your child was safe. Based on the incorrect information you had received, either conclusion – or both – might be wrong.

Next, you have to be first. Not at the expense of being right, but it’s important to get the word out first, no matter what “the word” might be. Getting critical information to those who need it as soon as possible helps prevent rumors from germinating and gives your organization a solid claim on competence and preparedness (enhancing your credibility). Most people will be seeking, expecting, perhaps even demanding information and direction, so you’ll likely have a very receptive audience, and the sooner you fill that vacuum the sooner they will be able to put your instructions into practice. Conversely, in the age of instant communication, the longer you don’t say anything, the more time other people have to say something – even if it’s incorrect. If you are spending the majority of your time reacting to other information, correcting rumors, or playing catch-up, people who need your information may see you as falling behind the pace and not able to anticipate foreseeable events.

Competency also counts. Know what you are talking about, not only as far as the incident is concerned, but also about your organization’s policies, procedures, plans, and programs. Anticipate what questions you might be asked and have those answers ready. Inability to answer basic questions about the event may cause you and the organization you represent to appear not only incompetent but uncaring as well, and of course that affects your credibility.

After competency comes consistency. Stay on message! It’s easy to get sidetracked, especially when fielding questions from media members or the public, but it’s critically important for you to continue to make your points. Here we also mean consistency in words and actions. For example, during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the public’s concerns were (in my opinion) exacerbated by the inconsistent messages coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Case in point: it had been announced that military members returning from service in the epidemic area would be held in isolation for the length of the Ebola incubation period (generally agreed upon as 21 days maximum), but no such mandate was put in place for non-military personnel. Why require isolation of military personnel, but not of civilians returning from the exact same areas?

And let’s be clear about being clear. Clarity counts! Referring back to the chemical spill we mentioned earlier, the President of the West Virginia American Water Company (while advising customers not to drink or even bathe with the water coming out of their faucets and taps) was quoted as saying, “I can’t tell you that the water is unsafe…but I also can’t tell you it’s safe.” Ummm . . . what? Cut through the crap, OK? Skip the acronyms, techno-babble, and industry- or agency-specific lingo. Those are fine if you’re speaking to people within your organization or profession, but using them outside that forum is often more of a distraction than anything else and can make you appear elitist or deceptive. Say what you need to say, but do so in a way your audience understands. If you’re reading what you are about to say (and yes, you should absolutely do that), and it doesn’t even make sense to you, how do you think it’s going to play when your audience hears it?

And I’d like to close with the theme of commonality. Think back to the last time you watched footage of a Federal or State official touring a disaster area. Were they wearing a suit and tie? Or were they in jeans with their shirt-sleeves rolled up. My guess would be the rolled-up sleeves option, for no other reason than it helps convey a sense of commonality, and whether it actually succeeds or not, that’s not to be despised. Commonality can also extend to overcoming potential language barriers. If you know (or even suspect) that a portion of your target audience speaks a primary language other than English, you need to take that into account. Disasters begin and end locally, and regardless of how much up-stream support you’re anticipating, in the initial stages you and the people around you are it. Who and what you have on hand is all you’ll have on hand, at least for a while, and I believe there is no better argument for commonality of purpose. The last thing you want to do is complicate matters by conveying an “us versus them” image. A “we’re all in this together” mindset is not optional – it’s necessary - especially since we’re all in this together.

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