Crisis Communication, How to Be Heard

Our crisis communication is lacking, and we keep paying a heavy price for it. We can do much better, and it's not even that hard.

06/22/2021
9.5 minutes
Adam Petrek
Crisis Communication, How to Be Heard
photo created by mindandi - www.freepik.com (Source)

We are experiencing a  growing frequency of natural disasters due to climate change – wildfires, droughts, severe winter storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. Acts of terrorism are still a possibility. However, most frequently, the crisis is simply caused by human error.  We might not be able to prevent natural disasters, but we can vastly improve how we deal with crises in general and drastically reduce the damage and loss of lives by improving communication.

Importance of Communication

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the government was quick to invest in assessing the situation to be better prepared in the future. The verdict was ‘very poor’ communication.  Even though they immediately looked into what should be improved to prevent severe damages and loss of life, no significant action was taken to improve it.

Every citizen needs to know that they can face the crisis successfully.

To tackle any crisis successfully, it shouldn’t be each for themselves; together, we can do so much more. Community action is vital during a crisis, yet it is often overlooked or somewhat hard to organize due to outdated or unreliable communication channels.

Citizens must be immediately guided and advised on how to proceed to prevent them from adopting faulty coping mechanisms that can lead to chaos and more deaths – such as using the stove for heating during winter storms or putting out an electrical fire with water. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, which is all the more reason why residents have to be advised on proper steps.  Every citizen needs to know that they can face the crisis successfully. All of this can be effectively addressed by improving the communication between the citizens and the city.

Poor Communication

The poor communication isn’t unique to the island of Puerto Rico. In fact, most of the cities are missing a proper communication channel with their citizens, yet many continue to ignore it. Whenever a crisis arises, the lack of communication becomes painfully visible and often results in deaths. Yet, afterward, there is little done about it, like in Puerto Rico. Maybe it is because the next crisis seems so far away that the attention returns to more pressing issues.

The community leaders have to be able to communicate with their citizens and guide them in response to a crisis.

In February 2021, Texas experienced an unprecedented electricity outage as a result of severe winter storms. Natural gas wells and pipelines froze, several water systems broke down, roads were closed, farmers and ranchers suffered heavy losses. The most tragic part is that it took the lives of over 200 people.

Over a hundred people died of hypothermia, and many lost their lives due to deadly fires and carbon monoxide poisoning in desperate attempts to warm themselves.

A lot of medical professionals agree that many deaths could’ve been easily avoided. Most of the Texas cities weren’t ready in terms of communication with the public. The worst part for people is not knowing what’s going on and how to proceed. This only leads to further chaos, damage, and even deaths.

This was a unique situation, but Texas had experienced outages in the past. The winter storms are growing more frequent, as well as droughts, fires, and natural disasters in general. The public needs to know about potential crises and how to act when they hit. At the very least, every city should have a reliable communication channel with its citizens.

This is very important even for day-to-day lives and engaging citizens in caring for their city. It is crucial during a crisis. The community leaders have to be able to communicate with their citizens and guide them in response to a crisis. They deserve to know about the crisis in their city from their city. It should be communicated via a reliable and official channel. They have to be aware of dos and don’ts, about the proper steps to help themselves and their neighbors.

Social Media and City Apps

Before the city begins communicating with its citizens, it needs a communication channel to reach them. Almost nobody visits city websites anymore, and it is not the best platform to communicate with citizens in real-time if a crisis arises. Even if you constantly update the information on the city website as the crisis unfolds, almost nobody will see it as residents will turn to more dynamic sources for help. People will need information as fast as possible, be notified of updates, and be able to communicate back. Social media does this better than any city website.

During crises, the affected people turn to social media for updates and assistance from other individuals and organizations. Many cities already have Facebook profiles, but most of them are underutilized, and for crisis communication, even Facebook is far from ideal. While Facebook is fine for announcements, WhatsApp and Twitter perform much better for rapid updates and information exchange.

Hurricane Sandy that hit the U.S.  in 2012 near Brigantine, New Jersey, caused 147 deaths, $50 billion in damage, and damaged or destroyed 656,000 buildings. During that time, affected citizens exchanged 52,493,130 tweets by 13,745,659 Twitter users.

Social media can help in the crisis, but the city must be part of the information exchange. Furthermore, it can prepare us for any future emergencies and lower their intensity.

Direct Communication Channel

Effective communication is essential during a crisis. The problem with social media is saturation; the posts from the city will get lost in the swarm of notifications the citizens receive from countless sources.

Ideally, each city would have its own direct communication channel with citizens. Therefore the messages and announcements don’t get lost among cat videos and memes from friends. This is just the city communicating with its citizens.

In the U.S., the majority of time spent online is on mobile devices. In the age of smartphones, a city app is an ideal solution. The city doesn’t have to compete with other messages. The city is in control of the notifications instead of third-party algorithms, and therefore in crisis, the citizens receive only viable solutions and directions through the app.

Most cities with a city app hired a contractor who made an expensive app for them and moved on. This is better than nothing, but these apps are overpriced, take too long to develop,  and become obsolete over time.

Simplicity App

Simplicity has a great solution. The Simplicity app offers a built product that can work in any city. Therefore, it can afford to offer a basic package for free with purchasable modules for an extra price depending on cities’ needs.

It offers a seamless communication channel with citizens. You can send any necessary info, messages, and custom notification to all citizens. The basic package aggregates all information like news, updates, events, etc., from the official city website and automatically sends it to all citizens via push notifications. In addition, it also contains all the important city contacts and information.

Additionally, citizens can use the app to report problems like potholes, graffiti, illegal dumping, and express their concerns and suggestions. Furthermore, rather than drop a product and move on, Simplicity is constantly improving and adding features.

In a crisis, even the basic package offers the perfect communication channel. The city can address corrective action and guide its citizens via messages to all users. Citizens can report live on the situation giving a wider and better reflection of the crisis’ progression than news. Therefore, the city can communicate to citizens what to do, what is going on, and make adjustments based on reports from citizens, thus working together through the emergency via the city app.

How to Communicate in a Crisis

Ok, we know that communication is essential and that we need a direct communication channel between the city and its citizens. Now let’s look at how to communicate. Mismanaged communication is as bad as no communication and can only add to the crisis.

Ideally, the city has already prepared and communicated to citizens a preventive plan. To build an Emergency Communication Plan (ECP), the city has to:

  1. Consider all available communication channels
  2. Establish a communication channel with citizens
    and local companies
  3. Promote the ECP among citizens

The city has to include plans to protect the most vulnerable residents. The community should be trained on how to react and help not only themselves but also their neighbors. In the best-case scenario, local professionals should be able to serve as volunteers during an emergency. Simply put, the city needs to be organized when any crisis strikes.

When the critical situation is upon us, the messages to citizens should be short, easy to understand, and with instructions that are easy to follow. Furthermore, it should be fast. The citizens should know about the crisis and steps to take from their city before they are spammed by third-party news altered for desired effect or faulty coping mechanisms which do more harm than good.

Much too frequently, the immediate response is denial or shifting the blame. This is rarely in the public interest, and though it might seem counterintuitive, it is not the best solution for preserving public image either.

The immediate response is essential, but it should never be jumping to conclusions and finger-pointing. Based on 2019 research, the public’s positive reception and the highest engagement are achieved by corrective action. It is much better received than denial, accusations, reducing offensiveness, or even taking the blame on yourself and becoming too apologetic. Most importantly, corrective action gets most liked, shared, and commented on. In a crisis, you want to spread the information and guidance as fast as possible; ideally, before the public turns to solutions from other sources.

Acknowledge and await

Regarding preserving a positive image and in hand with corrective action, the best strategy for a municipality is to ‘acknowledge and await.’ Acknowledge the crisis at hand honestly and with transparency. The ‘await,’ however, doesn’t mean doing nothing. Immediate corrective action is crucial. The ‘await’ refers to accusations or even taking the blame.

Take responsibility by saying that you feel responsible, take corrective action and guide the public. Do not say that you are responsible, undermining your position and ability to guide during the crisis. ‘Await’ means asking for patience until the investigation into the responsible party, and focus on dealing with the crisis at hand instead.

A perfect implementation of the ‘acknowledge and await’ while taking immediate corrective action was executed by mayor Jan Mans during the Netherlands’ Enschede fireworks disaster in May 2020. S.E. Fireworks factory exploded in the middle of a residential area and resulted in 23 deaths. Almost 1000 people got injured, 1,500 homes were damaged, and 400 houses were destroyed.

Even though the factory was originally built on unpopulated land, the city allowed it to become surrounded by housing as it grew without moving the factory. After investigation, the biggest mistakes that allowed the explosion to happen were open fire doors and illegal storage of fireworks in shipping containers placed close together. Although just a week prior to the explosion, the factory was inspected and met the safety regulations.

Take responsibility by saying that you feel responsible, take corrective action and guide the public.

This could be the end for the mayor in charge. However, Jan Mans did precisely what I am advising you to do as well. He took an immediate response. He said he felt responsible and followed with, “But we will not put ourselves on the rack till we have the results of the investigation” (Mans, 2001). Without finger-pointing, denial, or taking the blame, he prioritized his citizens and victims. He took corrective actions, guided and supported his citizens, even attended funerals and memorials.

In the end, the factory owners were sentenced to 6 months of imprisonment, which was extended to 12. Jan Mans was internationally seen as a hero and became the ‘crisis mayor.’ He remained in the office for another five years.

Let's Put It All Together

How to proceed before and during crises:

  1. Establish reliable communication between the city, its citizens, and businesses (social media, or ideally, a city app)
  2. Promote the communication channel among citizens to establish a link
  3. Promote the emergency communication plan, keep in mind vulnerable residents and ensure they would be taken care of
  4. Preferably train the public in proper steps for crises, and establish a community emergency team
  5. Once a crisis hits, acknowledge, take corrective actions, and await
  6. Respond immediately – inform public, state that you feel responsible, and begin dealing with a crisis (don’t point fingers, blame yourself, or deny what is happening)
  7. Begin corrective action -activate community, and guide citizens
  8. !!!Keep messages short, easy to understand, with instructions that are easy to follow!!!
  9. After the crisis is dealt with, investigate the causes to improve future steps and make sure that justice is served; both sanctions and compensations

The communication between cities and citizens is still lacking but can be easily rectified. Through better crisis communication, we save lives, reduce damages (including cities’ reputation), and unite the community. With better communication, the community can take an active part in helping their city and each other to deal with a crisis.

Therefore, reliable communication between the city and its residents is a must in this day and age. The ideal solution is a city app.

Let’s unite and save lives.