Crisis Communications: A Tale of Two Cities

Crisis Communications: A Tale of Two Cities

Written by Kathryn Stokes, NAGC President

Crisis communications planning has never been more important than it is today. The proliferation of social media has the ability to turn any event into an out-of-control news cycle in the blink of an eye. Social media may not be the culprit, but more often these days, groups use the tool to spark interest in an event, which may garner attention beyond their expectations. How well a community or agency plans for such unintended consequences distinguishes how they respond in the eyes of the world. Let’s look at two different scenarios and each community’s response and the aftermath.

If you attended the NAGC Communications School in June, you had the chance to hear Mark Basnight speak about the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting in Charlotte, N.C., that left one person dead, several injured, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

The response by the City of Charlotte was the definition of what NOT to do in an emergency. The city police department did not cooperate with the city communication department or the mayor’s office. They also refused to release the officer dash cam video, which ultimately supported the officer’s actions. That refusal, fueled by a social media campaign from the victim’s family, lead to days of rioting, numerous injuries, and damage to businesses and private property. Charlotte, N.C., needs to take a page from the Charlottesville, Va., playbook, because if anything in known in today’s world, it is that nothing happens in a vacuum and history does repeat itself.

By comparison, Charlottesville’s response in the wake of the tragic situation that occurred in August of this year is the kind of crisis communication response we all hope to replicate. The city expected a pro-nationalist march, and planned for the event. They knew it was going to be a large gathering, but did not know how large. City officials did not expect someone to use their car as a weapon, which killed one person and injured dozens; however, they planned for what they thought would be the worst-case scenario.

Because the City of Charlottesville partnered with officials from the local university, the county and the state ahead of the march, they were prepared when the march turned violent. Miriam Dickler, director of communications for the City of Charlottesville said, “The partnerships we have built over the past few years allowed us to communicate with one voice throughout the event. We practiced for such an event trying to imagine the worst, and planning how we would respond.” In a six hour period, their worst-case scenario played out for the world to see, capped off by the crash of a state police helicopter, which killed two troopers. They never anticipated that.

According to Dickler, the partnering communication professionals set up a Joint Information Center (JIC) in advance of the planned march. One of the primary functions of using a JIC is to determine who will be the primary spokesperson, and to identify all the roles and responsibilities ahead of time. In addition to the authorized spokesperson, identify a set of messages ready to go to when necessary. Setting up templates ahead of time expedites the communication process, something Dickler and her partners credited with helping them control the story.

Using a JIC, from which all communication flows, and where all participating organizations have access to the same information, is a good way to ensure accurate and timely information is presented to the media. It also helps minimize rumors. The worst thing that can happen during an emergency is to have too many chiefs wrangling for media attention with conflicting messages, such as the case during the North Carolina event.

Charlottesville city officials got in front of the story and stayed visible throughout the situation. They spoke with one voice and they controlled the story. Charlottesville did not have the days of rioting after their event like what occurred in Charlotte.

As government communicators we have only one choice when considering the unexpected events that might affect our communities, and that choice is to plan, plan, and plan. In addition to planning, practice is critical. The best way to confirm that your plan works is to practice it. Be sure crisis communication is part of your agency’s Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and insist that communication is one of the components tested each year.

This tale of two cities contrasts communication approaches, which exemplify the best and worst ways to react during any crisis situation. It is no longer a matter of ‘if’ we have to communicate during a crisis but ‘when’ will have to do so and how can we be most effective. Adopting lessons learned from peers is the best way to ensure we respond like Charlottesville, with one voice, in a timely fashion, and by controlling the narrative.

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