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Crisis communications: Building the public trust before, during and after an incident

How to “own” the incident through quick, accurate and ongoing information


“The more trust and credibility you can build daily, the better your crisis communications will be in reaching more people in less time when it counts,” Brady writes.

Photo/Tribune News Service

A crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.

The ability to effectively manage the crisis is key to not only a successful conclusion but also bolstering the public’s trust.

While such trust-building is key, a public safety agency’s ability to communicate with their community starts well before a crisis occurs. Building trust and credibility is vital during our blue-sky days so that when a crisis happens, we become the community’s credible and go-to source for important information. To quote Joe Farago, a fellow public information instructor, “The time to start building a house is not in the middle of a hurricane.”

Public safety agencies share articles, images and safety messages daily, mostly commonly via social media, to engage members of our community and increase trust with our agency. The more trust and credibility you can build daily, the better your crisis communications will be in reaching more people in less time when it counts. [At the end of this article, download a guide to crisis communications you can keep and share with colleagues.]

Crisis communication tools

Most agencies have a public information officer (PIO) or designee responsible for, among other tasks, communicating with the public and media every day and during times of crisis. Some agencies will designate the PIO role as a secondary responsibility of another department officer or staff member. This dual role can be very effective except when a crisis or major incident occurs, and the PIO function becomes neglected or delayed for a period of time.

We have many tools available to accomplish this massive responsibility of getting the right information to the right people at the right time so the people can make informed decisions.

  • Social media plays a much larger role than it did 15 years ago, and is still usually our quickest and most efficient way of alerting followers, the community, of important information.
  • Many agencies have a system (e.g., Everbridge or similar) that members of the community can opt into in order to receive emails, text messages, phone calls with important messaging from public safety or elected officials.
  • Other communication tools include wireless emergency alerts, siren systems and Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.
  • And let’s not forget going door-to-door, boots on the ground and PA systems, like those used at the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

There are many methods available to public safety agencies to help get the right information to the right people, and they must be established and ready at any moment to elevate the message.

“Own” the incident through quick communication

Another part of the equation of building and maintaining public trust is the relationship among the PIO, the chief, agency heads and elected officials, and how that trust affects the dissemination of information. Timing is critical if crisis communications is going to make a difference.

The PIO should have cleared the approval process well before a crisis to transmit lifesaving information at any moment without hurdles that could slow the timeline of the crisis. This approval is just one item that should be included in your agency’s crisis communications plan –one that is vital and often not considered.

Time is of the essence in crisis communications. An average timeframe of 3 minutes is all you have to be the first to send out correct and credible information. Your agency and PIO should own the incident and be in control of the messaging. Misinformation and disinformation will be rampant if no credible source has taken ownership of the crisis.

Principles of crisis communication

My principles of crisis communication include:

  • Be first: Be the first to post or communicate crisis information. Control the message and be the face of the crisis. That means 3 minutes for initial social media mention with follow-up every 10-15 minutes until the crisis is over.
  • Be right: Be as right as you can be with the information you have at the time. If you make a mistake, own up to it and move on. The public can forgive a mistake, but not a coverup. It is understood that some facts will change throughout the course of a crisis – be flexible in correcting and updating the information.
  • Be credible: Use the trust and credibility you have earned during the blue-sky days. Continue honest and transparent information sharing.
  • Express empathy: Avoid using “thoughts and prayers,” as that phrase has become meaningless to people in crisis as well as survivors. Use effective empathy in your voice, face and words. Understand the needs of others and be aware of their feelings and thoughts.
  • Promote action: Provide clear, simple and frequent requests for what you want people to do (e.g., “evacuate now” or “go inside and stay inside”). Members of the community want to feel involved and that they are helping. Be creative with involving the community before, during and after a crisis.
  • Demonstrate respect: Demonstrate respect the fact that other agencies may be involved (“we are in this together”). Also, keep in mind that there will be survivors; we must respect their situations and reemphasize empathy.

In today’s world of crisis communications, it is important to have a trained PIO or staff member who can communicate with the public using demographics in association with rapid and near-instant communications to save lives, property and protect the environment. Information needs to be shared before, during and after the crisis enters the recovery phase, and doing any less is an injustice to us and the community. Include PIOs in exercises and training. Constantly update your Crisis Communications Manuel and refer to it often.

Crisis comms gone wrong

We have seen recent crises making news that highlighted a lack of timely and credible information. Misinformation, disinformation, lack of information and rumors were rampant, and citizens of the immediate area, surrounding communities and families were left with no direction as to what to do and not do. News conferences were mismanaged, embarrassing and left more questions than answers. I believe a well-trained PIO would have been able to quickly communicate with members of the community and would have had better scripted and managed news conferences.

Stay out of the headlines

Departments need to take ownership of a crisis, incident or event. Having a well-trained PIO with a crisis communication plan can save lives, property and environment. It seems the departments that managed a crisis effectively are rarely mentioned or the incident remembered. Departments and events that are mismanaged, including a lack of crisis communications, remain in the headlines day after day.

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Mark Brady has served as a contract instructor for the FEMA Emergency Management Institute (EMI) since 2012, facilitating PIO courses including Public Information Basics, All Hazards-Position Specific PIO, Advanced PIO and Integrated Emergency Management courses. Brady also serves as a spokesperson and PIO for the Yvorra Leadership Development Foundation (YLD), a nonprofit organization providing monetary awards and scholarships to members of the fire/EMS service and the military. Brady previously worked for the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department for 40 years, acting as the department’s chief spokesperson and PIO for 27 of those years. Brady continues to serve as the PIO for the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company and Rescue Squad in College Park, Maryland, where he is a Life Member. Connect with Brady on Twitter.