Communicating in a Crisis - Risk communication for Public Officials

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Quick Facts

Publishing Organisation:
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)
Covers Thematic
  • Crisis communication Crisis communication is a strategic approach to corresponding with people and organizations during a disruptive event. When a crisis occurs, proactive, quick and detailed communication is critical.</br></br></br>Source:
  • Target audience
  • Policy Makers local, national, and European agencies and institutes, public authorities, standardization bodies
  • Practitioners Practitioners is a target group in LINKS which comprises local, national and European disaster management organizations, civil protection agencies, first responders, NGOs, security networks...
  • Audience experience level
  • Intermediate Those who currently use social media to communicate with the public and have developed a draft social media strategy, even if this is not thoroughly documented or communicated across the organisation</br></br>Source:
  • Disaster Management Phase
  • Before Comprises 'Preparedness Phase' and 'Prevention Phase'</br></br>Preparedness action is carried out within the context of disaster risk management and aims to build the capacities needed to efficiently manage all types of emergencies and achieve orderly transitions from response to sustained recovery.</br></br>Source:</br></br>Prevention (i.e., disaster prevention) expresses the concept and intention to completely avoid potential adverse impacts of hazardous events.</br></br>Source:
  • During Also referred to as "Response Phase"</br></br>Actions taken directly before, during or immediately after a disaster in order to save lives, reduce health impacts, ensure public safety and meet the basic subsistence needs of the people affected.</br></br>Annotation: Disaster response is predominantly focused on immediate and short-term needs and is sometimes called disaster relief. Effective, efficient and timely response relies on disaster risk-informed preparedness measures, including the development of the response capacities of individuals, communities, organizations, countries and the international community.</br></br>Source:
  • After Also referred to as 'Recovery Phase'</br></br>The restoring or improving of livelihoods and health, as well as economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets, systems and activities, of a disaster-affected community or society, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and “build back better”, to avoid or reduce future disaster risk.</br></br>Source:
  • Synopsis


    • Communications Fundamentals
    • Communicating Complex, Scientific, and Technical Information
    • Myths, Principles, And Pitfalls
    • Understanding and Working with the Media
    • Using Social Media Before And During Crises
    • Correcting Errors and Rumor Control
    • Assessing Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
    • Presenting Information at Public Meetings
    • Recognizing Opportunities to Speak Out

    This guide focuses on the following areas:

    • A brief orientation and perspective on the media for public officials, including discussion of how the media thinks and works, and on the public as the end-recipient of information
    • Techniques for responding to and cooperating with the media in conveying information and delivering messages before, during, and after a public health crisis
    • Tools of the trade of media relations and public communications
    • Strategies and tactics for addressing opportunities and challenges that may arise as a consequence of communications initiatives


    • Abstractions:
      • Use examples, stories, and analogies to make your point.
      • Don’t assume there is a common understanding between you and your audience (even when you are using stories and analogies to make your point).
    • Attacks:
      • Respond to issues, not to people.
      • Strive to end debates, not further them.
      • Don’t respond to an attack with an attack of your own.
    • Attitude/Nonverbal Messages:
      • Remain calm, attentive, and polite.
      • Adopt a relaxed, neutral physical stance.

      • Don’t let your feelings interfere with your ability to communicate positively.
      • Never convey disgust, frustration, indifference, or smugness.
      • Never lose your temper.
      • Don’t allow your body language, your position in the room, or your dress to affect your message.
    • Blame:
      • Accept your share of responsibility for a problem.

      • Don’t try to shift blame or responsibility to others and don’t magnify the fault to be found in others in order to deflect criticism or minimize your culpability.
    • Costs:
      • Focus on the benefits to be derived, not on the costs entailed.
        • If costs are an issue, voice respect for the need for responsible stewardship of public funds.

      • Don’t discuss issues in terms of their dollar value, or complain about a lack of funds.
    • Guarantees:
      • It is better to offer a likelihood, emphasizing progress and on-going efforts.
      • Don’t make comments like, “There are no guarantees in life.”
    • Humor:
      • Avoid it.
        • If used, direct it at yourself.

      • Don’t use it in relation to safety, or health, or in describing risk.
    • Jargon:
      • Define all technical terms and acronyms.

      • Don’t use language that may not be understood by even a portion of your audience.
    • Length of Presentations:
      • Plan, practice and deliver a cogent 15-minute presentation.

      • Don’t believe that what you are saying is inherently more interesting than other topics and therefore warrants more time.
      • By the same token, don’t end your remarks after 15 minutes if there are important audience questions in need of answering.
    • Negative Allegations:
      • Refute allegations succinctly.

      • Don’t repeat allegations or refer to them in ways that give them credibility.
    • Negative Words and Phrases:
      • Use positive or neutral terms.

      • Don’t cite national problems, or make highly charged analogies, which may belittle the current situation (e.g., don’t say, “This is not 9/11.”).
    • “Off the Record”:
      • Always assume everything you say and do is part of the public record.

      • Don’t make side comments or “confidential” remarks.
        • The rule is: Never say anything that you are not willing to see printed on the front page of a newspaper.
    • Personal Identity:
      • Speak for the organization. Use the pronoun “we.”

      • Don’t give the impression that you, alone, are the authority on the issues being raised or the sole decision-maker.
      • Never disagree with the organization you are representing, e.g., “Personally, I don’t agree,” or “Speaking for myself ...,” or “If it were me. ...”
    • Promises:
      • It is better to state your willingness to try. Promise only what you can deliver.
      • Don’t make promises you can’t keep and never make a promise on behalf of someone else.
    • Reliance on Words Alone:
      • Use visuals and hand-outs to emphasize key points.

      • Don’t rely entirely on the spoken word to explain your point.
    • Speculation:
      • Stick to the facts of what has, is, and will be done.

      • Don’t speculate on what could be done, or on what might happen, or on possible outcomes other than the intended one(s), or about worst case scenarios.
    • Statistics:
      • Use them to illuminate larger points and to emphasize trends and achievements.
      • Don’t make them the focus of your remarks, or overuse them.
    • Technical details and data:
      • Focus on empathy, efforts, and results.
      • Don’t try to fully inform and educate audiences on the minutia of issues.

    Five Rules for Building Trust and Credibility

    • 1. Accept and involve the public as a partner.
      • Work with and for the public to inform, dispel misinformation and, to every degree possible, allay fears and concerns.
    • 2. Appreciate the public’s specific concerns.
      • Statistics and probabilities don’t necessarily answer all questions.
      • Be sensitive to people’s fears and worries on a human level.
      • Your position does not preclude your acknowledging the sadness of an illness, injury, or death.
      • Do not overstate or dwell on tragedy, but do empathize with the public and provide answers that respect their humanity.
    • 3. Be honest and open.
      • Once lost, trust and credibility are almost impossible to regain.
      • Never mislead the public by lying or failing to provide information that is important to their understanding of issues.
    • 4. Work with other credible sources.
      • Conflicts and disagreements among organizations and credible spokespersons create confusion and breed distrust.
      • Coordinate your information and communications efforts with those of other legitimate parties.
    • 5. Meet the needs of the media.
      • Never refuse to work with the media.
      • The media’s role is to inform the public, which will be done with or without your assistance.
      • Work with the media to ensure that the information they are providing the public is as accurate and enlightening as possible.
      • If your agency or organization has a communications office, work with them on approaches to dealing with the media.

    SOURCE: Covello and Allen, 1988; Palttala, Boano, Lund, & Vos, 2012

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