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How to Talk to the Public When the Heat is On

Coauthored with J Vander Stoep of Sound Counsel Crisis Communication

Local governments are finding themselves under a higher level of public scrutiny than ever before, and the stakes are high when a challenging event occurs.

The day a significant crisis begins and the public spotlight is trained on your government agency, your staff and elected officials likely will not yet have all the facts regarding the issue. At this same moment—working with incomplete information and under high levels of stress—your agency may be pulled between advice from legal counsel to say nothing and the instinct to get out in front of and control the story, even in advance of having all the facts. Adding to the challenge are social media networks, which allow members of the public to jump in to the void and take control of the narrative before an official response is released.

Taking all of these elements into consideration, it isn’t a surprise that most organizations respond poorly when the spotlight hits them in a crisis. Fortunately, your agency can prepare for such an event. In fact, it doesn’t take a great deal of time and effort to become prepared, and by doing so, empower your team with a path when a crisis does arise.

Planning ahead and creating an agency-wide crisis communications plan should be seen as a good investment. It’s just like insurance: You hope you don’t need a plan but it’s a mistake not to have one. Creating a crisis plan can cost very little, and a well-considered plan can mean the difference between an agency thriving through adversity and one that loses the community’s trust on a long-term basis.

Creating a Plan

Here are five steps a local government can take right now to help with crisis readiness.

Establish a Chain of Command

A clear chain of command related to agency communications is the most important thing an organization can do to improve its readiness. This means establishing which staff will make communications decisions during a crisis, including back-up staff, and which staff should be consulted.

It’s likely, for example, that your agency attorney will want to vet any communications during a response. It’s essential, then, that the attorney understands some of the exigencies of crisis communications, including the need for a speedy response and that saying “no comment” might work in a legal context but not in the world of communications.

Failing to clarify this chain of command in advance will increase the already sizable amount of chaos that accompanies a crisis.

Identify (and Prepare) Your Spokesperson

In a crisis, the highest ranking elected or appointed official in your agency will likely make an initial statement, but he or she might not be speaking continually with the press. Who will that person be? And will that person be trained to work with the media? If your agency has a professional communications team or staff in place, the answers to these questions may be obvious. If not, have a plan in place for who will become your agency’s spokesperson throughout a crisis situation.

Training can make a huge difference to a spokesperson’s performance during a crisis. Practice can help a spokesperson understand what messages are appropriate to share and how best to answer difficult questions from the media and your constituents.

Prepare Your Response Infrastructure

If a crisis hits an agency on a weekend, the communications team, whether professional or ad hoc, should be able to post an announcement from anywhere, at any time. Similarly, an agency should ensure that its website is capable of handling a dramatically enlarged amount of traffic without crashing.

Compile Contact Information

Every agency has unique audiences that it needs to communicate with during a crisis—neighborhood organizations, the business community, media contacts, neighboring jurisdictions, local service providers, the Governor’s Office, regional emergency management coordinators, employees, third-party experts, and so on. Who will you be reaching out to? Compiling this contact information in advance helps your agency make sure it reaches the right people immediately and saves precious time on administrative tasks, all when it matters most.

Understand and Use Social Media

If a high-profile crisis hits your agency, scores of people will be using various social media sites to talk about the event. Ideally, a local government should be able to respond to this increased scrutiny using its own social media presence.

We suggest that local governments start their Facebook and Twitter presence now, especially if you haven’t already. Among other things, this will ensure that good information about the agency will be included on these channels, that the agency has an opportunity to listen and track public sentiment, and that constituents have a venue for voicing their support of your efforts.

We also recommend that agencies have an understanding of how to manage and search social media trends using services like Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Social Mention, Google Alerts, Google Analytics, Twitter, and Facebook. These days, a crisis can unfold entirely in the world of social media, and what you don’t know can hurt you!


If you want to learn more consider registering for our Tuesday, April 16 webinar: Crisis Communications - How to Respond Effectively When the Public is Watching. During this webinar, J Vander Stoep of Sound Counsel Crisis Communication will cover best practices for effective communication response during sensitive or crisis situations, as well as examples of how not to respond.

Additional templates for crisis communcations can be found via these links:

Question? Comments

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Tracy Burrows

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.