Communications as Failure in Crisis Response

I recently spoke at a two-day all-hazard crisis incident response seminar in Berkeley, Calif., titled, “Thriving in the First 96 Hours.” Among other activities, I took part in a leadership panel to field questions about crisis communications. This post, and others, is adapted from my short responses to questions on the topic asked before and during that panel discussion.

Communications is often cited as a failure in crisis response operations. Can you share any insight with regards to crisis communications?

Timing is critical, and common failures are waiting too long to release information and/or releasing incorrect, unverified information early, then not correcting it immediately upon realizing the mistake.

An example of how waiting too long to communicate with affected publics can be disastrous to your reputation was the 24-hour self-imposed media blackout of Freedom Industries, the responsible party for a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River, which negatively impacted about 300,000 customers of the local water utility.

What are the solutions to the challenge of communicating risk and crisis information as soon as possible, while taking care to ensure that the information you release is factual?

Communicators and those in leadership positions during crisis incident response operations need to have the courage and intuition to tell their story. We all know what happens if you don’t tell your own story during times of high concern — someone else will, and without the benefit of knowing all the facts.

Those same people in the midst of a crisis also need to remember that initial reports are just that, and that the information will change as first responders learn more and report back. Lastly, while crisis communicators are waiting for verified facts that they can release, they need to communicate what they do know – what their organization is doing to respond to and mitigate the crisis.

Talk to me, Goose.

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