Your worst nightmare is that a disaster strikes your community. A flood, a bridge collapse, an act of terrorism — they are all fears that keep you up at night. If you are a public safety officer for a local government, are you prepared to act fast enough? Do you have the infrastructure, staff and planning in place to ensure prompt and informative communications that will reach as many citizens as possible?
Do not wait for a disaster to occur to test your communication plan. Be prepared in advance so that if the worst-case scenario threatens to devastate your community, you can step into action without hesitation. By defining your audience, planning your communication channels, collaborating with emergency personnel and creating a triage plan, you can build the foundation for a crisis communication plan that will keep your citizens informed and safe in the event of a local emergency.
#1 Start by Identifying Your Audiences
While your immediate concern must be for the safety of your citizens, start your crisis communication planning by identifying all the audiences that you will need to communicate with if a disaster occurs. This list should include:
- Citizens – Think about triaging communications to residents based on their proximity to the incident. For example, you may not need to communicate to all citizens in your county about a water main break, but you should communicate to everyone in, and traveling to, the immediate area.
- Visitors – Do not forget non-residents who happen to be in the area when a disaster strikes. They are just as much at risk of inclement weather and threatening situations. If you have not already done so, implement a mass notification system that offers geolocation-based communications that do not require a subscription.
- Local Businesses – Local disasters may have specific consequences for businesses in your community. As organizations that play an essential role in your municipality, and that have vital interactions with citizens, they will need to understand what events are occurring, how events may impact their business and the role they can play in helping to manage the crisis and recovery efforts.
- The Media – Your local and regional media outlets will want to know what events have occurred and what your administration plans to do to manage the situation all the way through the recovery process. The media will also be instrumental in helping you communicate potentially life-saving directions and instructions to citizens. Make sure contacts at all your local media outlets are part of your communication plan. Create a short list of members in your administration who can speak directly with the media. These individuals should receive advance crisis communication training, be familiar with pre-approved communication messages, and be introduced to members of the media contacts so that reporters know who to contact with questions or for comments.
- Your Crisis Emergency Response Team (CERT) – CERTs help to educate citizens about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact your community, and train them in necessary disaster response skills. CERT members learn critical emergency response skills and commit to helping serve their community following a disaster activity when professional responders are not immediately available. Remember to notify these valuable citizens if their volunteer services are needed.
#2 Build Contact Lists and Establish Communication Channels in Advance
When a disaster occurs, it is too late to try to obtain contact information for all the audiences listed above, especially citizens. Start preparing for a potential emergency now by encouraging citizens to opt-in to receive emergency notifications from your public safety office.
#3 Make Sure You Have a Way to Reach Visitors
Your communication plan must include a strategy for reaching visitors in the area — non-residents who would not have signed-up to receive emergency alerts. Engaging your local media will help you connect with visitors. Also, consider a strategy to distribute messages to digital road signs in your community. For more robust capabilities, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS). This emergency notification tool leverages national emergency communication channels to provide area-specific alerts in times of emergency, including wireless emergency alerts (WEA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radios.
#4 Coordinate Planning Efforts with Safety Officials
Make sure your communication plan includes contact information for local public safety officials and a strategy for who is responsible for communicating with them. Work with your safety personnel in advance to co-create protocols and procedures for how best to collaborate to announce public safety information and instructions.
#5 Establish Infrastructure and Training for Communication Triage
Once you have established your audiences and have planned your communication channels, put together a communication triage strategy. An effective plan should include the following elements:
- Call Center Staffing – Expect that your administration will receive a higher than average volume of calls from all your audiences in the days that follow a local disaster. Create a plan to staff your call center accordingly, or even redirect incoming calls to a second call center if possible.
- Train Staff to Update Your Local Government Website – Your website will be one of the first places that citizens, visitors and the media go to find the latest information regarding the current disaster. Train designated members of your emergency response team on how, where and when to publish emergency alert information on your municipal website.
- Integrate with Social Media – To amplify the reach of your message, make sure your communication triage plan includes a distribution of alerts via available social media channels. 56 percent of Americans age 12 years old and older have a profile on a social network site1, and many users report looking to platforms such as Twitter for news and time-sensitive Incorporating social media into your crisis communication strategy will amplify the reach of your critical communications and increase your chances of reaching citizens away from their homes and televisions.
- Ensure You Have an Internal Communication Strategy – A plan for external communications is essential, but do not overlook the importance of building a strategy for internal stakeholders to communicate with one another as well. In a crisis, local government administrators need to be able to alert and convene key personnel instantly. Be sure you can implement your communication plan even if the disaster has disrupted cell service. Implement an alternative digital communication solution that includes an integrated conference bridge that will allow you to connect decision makers to one another on a unified call within seconds to enable immediate response planning.
About the Author
Jennifer Elliott is the Marketing Manager for CivicReady, focusing on local government and emergency management’s needs and challenges communicating to citizens. She ensures that the benefits of the CivicReady system are communicated and being leveraged by our local government clients. She leads the marketing effort for the CivicReady product and assists product strategy with communications and implementations. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications and Journalism with a major in Public Relations from Kansas State University. She has more than 17 years of experience in both the public and private sector, handling internal and external audience communications with a focus on marketing.
1 Baer, Jay. 11 Shocking New Social Media Statistics in America. Retrieved June 13, 2018, from http://www.convinceandconvert.com/social-media-research/11-shocking-new-social-media-statistics-in-america/
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