Crisis Communications – How Much is Too Much Information?
As I write this post there is a forest fire blazing less than five kilometers from my house. First, I am safe and carefully monitoring fire updates. As someone who has worked in crisis communications for a number of years, this time I’m on the outside, relying on information from others to know what’s going on, versus being the one giving the updates.
The individuals who work in crisis communications have a key, and stressful, role to play. The public is wanting to know what is happening, expecting (and demanding) regular updates.
But how often should these updates be given? And on what channels? What information needs to be shared? And by who?
To help simplify this, and dissect crisis communications, let’s look at the forest fire that is currently burning on the mountain near me.
First the facts. The fire started Wednesday afternoon on the side of a mountain near a main road. Fire crews were called out and within three hours, seven fire halls had responded, plus helicopter support through our provincial fire service.
These are the confirmed facts. Now here are the unconfirmed facts (or rumors) that were circulating on social media within an hour of the fire. The fire is on a popular hiking trail. It was caused by someone who was smoking (who should be hung up by their hiking boots and left in the woods), and we all needed to get ready to evacuate. The fire was out of control.
So here is the challenge for the staff working in crisis communications. Separating facts from rumors and being seen as the credible go-to source for information.
In this case, the local newspaper was the first to report the fire on its Facebook page (which is the new normal). It meant the local government wasn’t first out of the gate. But their job was to get the facts.
Now this doesn’t mean waiting until you have all the information. At the early stages of a crisis I like go with – share the obvious – information. Get out of the gate and share what you know to be true. In this case there is a fire on the mountain. Fire crews are responding. We will provide an update in XX minutes with more information.
This buys you time to figure out what the heck is happening. And no one expects you to know the full story right away. It also establishes your organization as a source of information. Make sure you let everyone know exactly what time the next update will be posted – and don’t be late!!!
The where to post is all your usual platforms. Every single platform you have available. Facebook, Twitter, website, media distribution list, e-alert…the list goes on. Warning – this is not the time to use a new platform. Rather, focus on the platforms you traditionally use to communicate information. If the crisis expands and there is a demand for a new platform, you can consider it. But not in the early stages.
For governments, it is also a good idea to get your elected officials to share information from your channels with their audiences versus creating their own posts. Yes, they can add their own personal message, but make sure they are directly linking to your website updates or re-sharing your social media posts. This further reinforces your organization is the go-to place to get information. It also gives you access to an audience that may not be following your channels.
As the crisis unfolds, you may have periods of time where you have no new information to report. This doesn’t mean you remain silent, as your audience is wanting regular updates. So continue to outline how often you will provide updates and stick to these timelines. When you have nothing new to report, recap what you know, the status of the event, and let your audience know nothing has changed since the last update. Don’t assume people remember all the information from your last update. And rumors and facts may have since clouded what they remember.
Finally, don’t forget your KEY audiences. This may mean having different messaging for those DIRECTLY impacted versus those watching on the outside. In the case of this forest fire, there is a cluster of homes that are on a 30 minute evacuation standby. What information do they need to know, versus those of us on the outer ring? Yes, you can share this information broadly on your channels, but also think about how you are going to get this information DIRECTLY into the hands of the impacted residents.
Have you been involved in a crisis before? I’d love for you to share with me any key learnings you have on crisis communications challenges or successes.
If you haven’t dealt with a crisis or want to refresh your crisis communications skills, check out my How to Manage Crisis Communications bundle. This will walk you through the various stages of a crisis – pre-planning, during the crisis, and after the crisis. It includes a video training presentation and step-by-step guide.
Now I’m going back to monitoring social media in hopes the forest fire is put out soon.
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