Preparing for a Crisis…In the Middle of a Crisis

Susanne Bankhead

Vice President Client Affairs, Community Engagement

As “recovering” Public Information Officers, we’ve managed our share of crisis communications for a variety of incidents. We know firsthand how quickly a crisis can hit. Whether it’s a gunman opening fire in a crowd, a wildfire burning through a city or an airplane landing on the crowded beach on a holiday weekend, our team has seen it all. 

Naturally, each September during National Preparedness Month, we stress with our clients the importance of having a crisis communications plan and developing emergency preparedness campaigns for the communities they serve. 

The events of 2020 have only served to underscore that message. Let’s recap. 

Australian wildfires. Check.

Harry and Meghan leave royal family (A different kind of crisis, okay?!?). Check.

Global pandemic. Check.

Tiger King (see above comment!). Check.

Civil unrest. Check.

Murder hornets. Check.

General election. Check.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, “wow, how could this year possibly get any worse?” I’m not sure you got the memo, but it’s 2020. All bets are off. 

Many of you have been managing around-the-clock crisis communications for COVID-19, which has completely consumed you, your team, and your agency colleagues for five months (and counting!). While we can’t predict what else 2020 has in store, as PIOs, we can and must prepare for the next “crisis within a crisis” on the horizon. 

How do you go about preparing for crisis when you’re in the middle of one? 

1. Focus on the Little Things: It’s important to think about doing the little things proactively to prepare. Those little things will quickly become the big things in a crisis. Dust off those holding statements for emergency preparedness and wildfires, as we head into fire season. Update your media distribution list. Check your emergency resources at local, state and federal levels to make sure they’re up to date. 

2. Hit Pause and Debrief: If you can, create some space to debrief on your agency’s COVID-19 response. As COVID-19 numbers continue to improve, it’s a great time to “zoom out” and think about lessons learned to help your response to the next crisis, while they are top of mind. What should you stop doing? What should you keep doing? What should you start doing? Organize an informal meeting or tabletop to discuss these questions. Where needed, consider formal training customized to your needs through experts like Scott Summerfield and Sherri Benninghoven of SAE Communications or Cal OES’s California Specialized Training Institute.

3. Find your Village: Now more than ever, you need a team to support your agency’s crisis communications. Let’s face it. None of us were truly prepared to respond to COVID-19, the most profound crisis of this generation. COVID-19’s scope, scale and duration make all other incidents look like a spa day in comparison. Whether you’re a team of one or 10, take time now to identify the support you need to effectively manage the next crisis. Not everyone has a large communications team or budget to call in a consultant in the event of a crisis. Our suggestion: be creative. Think about the colleagues in your organization. Who are those team players you can always count on? Procure them and provide training so you’re ready for the next crisis. 

4. Read the Room: As communicators, it’s important to have a realistic perception of our audiences right now. Our community members are grappling with uncertainty related to COVID-19, while balancing often competing obligations as parents, employees, friends and family members. Stress is at an all-time high. In a recent article for Psychology Today, family psychologist Dr. Robert Weiss references the “Five Common Stages of Grief” and outlined how each stage is playing out in times of COVID-19. It’s important to realize we’re all in varying stages of grief during the pandemic and that will certainly influence level of engagement and sentiment between you and your audiences.  

5. Keep Your Sense of Humor: As hard as it is, try to keep a healthy sense of humor with your team as you continue to navigate 2020.  Not only is humor incredibly unifying in times like these, but laughter has both mental and physical benefits. Later this month, JPW is partnering with our friends at the California Association for Public Information Officials and the City of Tustin to host a webinar about using humor in government communications. The session is called “Putting the LOL in Local Government” and we hope it brings some non-COVID levity (and laughs!). 

As we approach the home stretch of 2020, a year that we’ll never forget, we encourage you to keep up the good work. You’re putting in serious time and effort, providing critical information and reassurance to the public in the moment they need it most. This month, with crisis communications top of mind, take time, be intentional and plan for what “could be” in the remainder of 2020.

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