Emergency Communication


Disseminating information in a crisis:

Notification, Communication, and Your Crisis Plan

 

PART II: Communication

The most precious commodity during a crisis is information.  We’re all familiar with the feeling of wanting to know MORE about what is going on.  The major networks on TV along with the Cable News providers have capitalized on it. Even the Comedy Central Channel has capitalized on it with “The Daily Show with John Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”.  During a crisis the need for information is amplified. First responders need to know what is happening so they can respond effectively.  Organizations want to know what is happening to their employees and their operations. Relatives of people directly affected by the events want to know that their loved ones are safe.  Therefore when developing a crisis plan one must include the flow of information as an integral component of the plan.

In this two-part series we will review strategies for providing and receiving information before, during, and after a crisis.  The first part dealt with “notification” strategies and services and the second part deals with “communication” strategies and solutions.

Many organizations confuse “notification” with “communication”. The difference is simple: Notification refers to information flowing in one direction only, while communication refers to information flowing in both directions. 

The communication of information addresses two main categories: Internal Communication and External Communication.  These categories encompass the following recipients: 

  1. Internal Communication:
    • Crisis Team
    • Executive / senior management / ownership
    • Internal stakeholders (staff, clients immediately affected by the crisis, etc.)
  2. External Communication:
    • First Responders
    • Media Communication
    • External Stakeholders (community agencies, lenders, vendors, etc.) 

Each of the categories and groups described above might also require different means or medium with which to communicate (“how” do we communicate). For example, the crisis team might require relatively low-tech walkie-talkies or mobile phone apps, while communicating to the external stakeholders or the media might be via any number of social media platforms or tools (Twitter, Facebook, Press Releases) or the traditional live statements. As technology has advanced it has become easier to find cost effective solutions to the “how” question: walkie-talkies are very cheap and require no infrastructure investment in Wi-Fi or other electrical enhancements.  Another solution are smartphone (or tablet) apps that allow the device to function as a walkie-talkie.  This solution, while more expensive, precludes the need for staff to carry an additional device, and since most people never go anywhere without their mobile phone it is easy to incorporate into the routine.

In addition to the tools being used to communicate the information, it is important to define the “schedule of communication” – in other words: when and how often should recipients expect to receive information updates. While there is no hard and fast rule, it is always best to clarify expectations in advance.  Once a schedule has been agreed upon it is important to follow – even if there is nothing new to report.  Consistency is calming and reassuring.

The responsibility for internally communicating information lies with everyone.  During a crisis people are often concerned about overwhelming or “disturbing” their supervisors / managers and hold on to information.  Restricted flow of information can (and often does) create interruptions in the crisis management efforts. Emergency planners need to define a process to collect all the information in order to make use of it in real time. This can be accomplished by assigning someone to document all the information being passed along and providing the Team Leader with this information on a consistent basis.

During the planning phase, the responsibility for communicating externally needs to be assigned.  While the organization wants to encourage all staff to relay information internally, there should only be one or two externally facing individuals authorized to speak on behalf of the organization.  Additionally, it saves a lot of time if the recipient of communication is identified ahead of time.  Spending 10 minutes one day clarifying who the best contact would be during an emergency or crisis, can save time and aggravation in the middle of a situation which is tense enough without any added frustration. Creating a list of vendors (along with account numbers if applicable), emergency response personnel and other important stakeholders, can make the process of communicating during or immediately after a crisis, more efficient and effective.

To summarize, the crisis communication plan is a crucial part of the emergency response plan.  Creating the plan involves the following steps:

1.     Defining who falls into the “internal” and who into the “external” categories.
2.     Deciding how (what tools) the communication will occur – walkie-talkies, Twitter, Press Releases, etc.
3.
     Assigning responsibility for:

  • Collecting information flowing in.
  • Interfacing with First Responders and local authorities.
  • Representing the organization to the news and local media
  • Providing internal stakeholders with up to date information
  • Dealing with vendors and other critical relationships.

4.     Create a schedule of communication.
5.
     Ensure you have a list of all the important contacts in one place and have identified the individuals to connect with (if applicable).

 

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