Strategies for effective press briefings during critical incidents

Detailing the information to share in a press briefing and how to build trust with the public and media


By Mark Brady

In a recent blog post, Jordan Villwock discussed the four types of emergency alert and warning systems used by public safety agencies to provide critical information to the public. When faced with a disaster, crisis situation or working incident, it is important to quickly provide the media with as much information as possible. What is the next step once an alert has been communicated? A press briefing is a logical plan of action.

Information to share in a press briefing

When faced with a disaster, crisis situation or working incident, it is important to quickly provide the media with as much information as possible.
When faced with a disaster, crisis situation or working incident, it is important to quickly provide the media with as much information as possible.

More informal than a press conference, press briefings are used to give updates during a developing event. An initial briefing is held at a safe location near the incident as soon as basic information is gathered. Information to provide the media during a press briefing includes:

  • Essential details. First, explain the type and cause of the incident, such as flooding due to a hurricane or school evacuation due to a bomb threat. Next, describe the size of the impact. This could be an area of land or a single structure (e.g., a school). Lastly, use a general description when reporting the number of victims. This information will likely change, so initially it’s best to use generalities like “about a dozen.” You may provide more specifics about the exact number of victims and their conditions as you confirm through other sources. Be aware of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations when describing those with injuries; using the terms “life-threatening” and “non-life-threatening” is acceptable.
  • Resources. Discuss what agency (or agencies) is involved and include the resources committed, including the number of apparatus, personnel and incident commanders, as well as the level of command working to control the situation.
  • Evacuation details. It’s imperative to provide timely information to the right people so the public is made aware of next steps in the event of an evacuation. If you’re unable to provide enough specific information in a press briefing, point them to a website where they can find comprehensive information and instructions.
  • Reunification locations. Where and when can parents pick up their children? If large animals were evacuated, where are they being held? Be empathetic and anticipate what the public will want to know, but don’t feel pressured to elaborate: “Due to the current situation, parents can pick up their children at XYZ location. There are no injuries and children are safe.”
  • Further information. During crisis situations, many people call 911 for information because they feel helpless about what to do or who to ask. To avoid overloading 911, provide a secondary number (such as a 311 function) for them to call. Remember to provide as much pertinent information as you can (evacuation deadline, location of reunification center, etc.) so a call isn’t necessary, but remind everyone 911 is for emergencies only.

Hold additional briefings to provide new information as the situation develops—either at a pre-arranged time, or impromptu to share breaking developments. Be sure to give yourself enough time to return to the command post or incident command center to gather the latest and most accurate information. To reach a wider audience, consider broadcasting the message on social media using Periscope or the live feature available on Facebook and Twitter. Use each subsequent press briefing as an opportunity to correct any misinformation that may have been previously reported by your agency or other outlets.

Build trust through accurate, timely information

To build credibility with the public and media, consider the following best practice guidelines when holding a press briefing. First, keep it short. Your focus should be on providing the necessary information. Don’t waste other’s time with details only required in a police report narrative.

Second, ensure consistent messaging across all speakers. Consider the motto, “One message, many voices.” Make sure everyone speaking to the public is delivering the same message so citizens can trust what you’re saying.

Third, make sure you are relaying accurate incident details. Never speculate about these details! Speculation is essentially lying and once you’ve lied, you’ve destroyed the trust the public has in you. Stick to the facts—what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard from incident commanders. Provide information in a format that citizens can understand while answering the basic who, what, where, when, why, how questions.

Finally, anticipate questions and prepare responsesThink of questions you might be asked—the good, the bad and the ugly—and draft responses beforehand. You can also allow for questions to help clarify the information you’ve provided.

To learn more about effective press briefings, watch our on-demand webinar, Time-Critical: Communicating Effectively During Disasters and Major Incidents.

About the author

Mark Brady is the manager of public relations for Prince George's County Fire & EMS in Maryland, where he also serves as the chief spokesperson and public information officer. In this position, he oversees community outreach, including social media, public education, and legislative affairs for the department. Mark has nearly 45 years of fire and EMS experience with Prince George's County, including 27 years as a PIO. He is also an experienced FEMA instructor, teaching classes for basic PI and advanced PIO as well as all-hazards incident management team PIO.

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