Emergency Preparedness and Response, Fire Safety

Who Speaks for You in a Crisis?

At about 9 a.m. on October 4, 2016, contractors were cleaning coal bunkers at the Cambria Cogen power station in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, when an explosion occurred. The explosion injured four workers, two of them seriously—but early news reports stated that three men were taken to the hospital with burns, and little else. Always in the wake of a disaster, there is a point at which the demand for information outstrips what is known—and yet, the questions must be answered. At that point, regardless of what is or is not known, somebody has to talk to the press. Do you know who that person is, in your workplace?

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a guidance document, Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. The document is intended to assist hospitals and other healthcare providers to communicate effectively with the media, the public, and stakeholders during a public health crisis—but many of its principles are generally applicable, and they could be used by any organization to help prepare for the inevitable media crush that complicates any disaster situation.

Here are a few tips.

What’s a Crisis?

What exactly do you need to be prepared for? What makes a situation a “crisis?” According to the CDC, a crisis:

  • Occurs unexpectedly
  • May not be in the organization’s control
  • Requires an immediate response
  • May cause harm to the organization’s reputation, image, or viability

Your organization will be judged in part by its ongoing response to a crisis. That response includes your interactions with the media and the public, so it’s important that you identify, in advance, the person (or people) who will do that job, and ensure that they understand what to do at each stage of crisis response.

The Face of Your Organization

Whenever there’s an emergency at your facility, you will probably begin to think in terms of response—immediate medical care for anyone who is injured, securing the site, preventing further hazards, cleaning up the mess, and restoring the facility to normal. But all of that looks inward to your facility and your own people. Whose job is it to look outward and communicate with the media, the community, and stakeholders?  And what does that person need to be doing?

Before a crisis, you should identify a communicator, just like you would identify an incident commander and first responders. The communicator’s job includes being ready for a crisis by anticipating the sort of crisis that could occur, thinking about and planning for the sort of response that might be required, and building a list of contacts for use in any anticipated situation. For example, if it’s possible that a chemical release at your site could require evacuation of nearby homes and businesses, your communicator should know who to contact to accomplish that as quickly as possible.

During the initial phase of a crisis, it is important for your designated communicator to make contact with media and community representatives, and attempt to reduce any crisis-related uncertainty. If, for example, people must evacuate their homes, the communicator could provide an estimate of when they will be able to return, and any information about how you plan to continue communicating with people who are temporarily dislocated by the crisis. Because it is during this stage that confusion and media interest are most intense, while information is least readily available, it is important that the communicator present information in a way that is simple, credible, accurate, consistent, and timely.

During the maintenance phase of a crisis, people outside your organization may be asked to comment on the crisis, and some of their comments may be                 critical—perhaps a local environmental agency had criticized your chemical storage and handling practices in the past and is now going to use this opportunity for publicity for itself. This is normal and to be expected. At this point, listening is as important as talking. Your communicator should track media reports and gather feedback from the community and stakeholders. If possible, misinformation should be corrected and communication from your organization should continue to be as consistent, credible, and timely as possible.

During the resolution phase of a crisis, your communicator should explain ongoing recovery efforts to the media and affected groups. Media coverage may be less    intense—but there may be a need to deal with media scrutiny of the recovery process.

During the evaluation phase of a crisis, you should assess your own crisis response. What went well? What went badly? What do you need to do to be better prepared if there should be a “next time?”

Tomorrow we’ll look at the stress incurred by your communication personnel during a crisis and how you can help them manage it.