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 is the last post in a series that has been adapted from my short responses to questions on the topic asked before and during that panel discussion.
(Update: Sep. 29, 2014 – I was missing a little clarity in the original posting of this piece. Ed McDonough brought that to my attention down in the comments section. My mindset when writing this piece [and formulating my answer during the Berkeley seminar] was the crisis communications support role that Incident Commanders may play during major incidents that require a prolonged response. My response also considers all facets of comms, not just media relations. Thanks for keeping me honest, Ed! Question/response below are unedited from the original posting, minus the context in this paragraph.)
If you could give one critical piece of advice to Incident Commanders about strategic messaging, its use and being timely what would that be?
This is very easy for me to answer, even considering that it is such an open-ended questions with so many great possible answers — of course, my “one critical piece of advice” is backed up by several key points.
At the incident commander or unified command (or executives, in the corporate world) level in a disaster incident response management organization, delivery of messages is the most important skill to hone. I say this because when people are upset during a crisis, they pay attention more to how you say things than to the details of what you say. Of course, that doesn’t mean “don’t worry about the content!”
When someone reaches the point of being in command, he or she should have already gone through basic strategic communications training — what it is, why leaders need to know how to do it, how to create effective messages and practice putting the basic concepts into play.
Part of honing the craft of delivering messages effectively comes down to understanding a very basic fact: no sane person wakes up in the morning and says, “I really hope there’s a crisis today, and I have to talk about how I’m mitigating it to people who are upset or afraid.” That’s why we practice. As often as possible.
The job of the incident commander is to talk to people and promote transparency of information to build trust and credibility for the response management organization. Another important factor that aids in the delivery of messages is someone who can concentrate on 5,000-10,000 foot view of the situation, not the 40,000-foot view (that’s for people in higher pay grades).