MCP Insights

Exploring the Basics of Crisis Communications for Public Safety

Posted on March 24, 2021 by Sherri Griffith Powell

A constant in the public safety community is that agencies, no matter where they are located, inevitably will encounter a crisis that will affect, or even disrupt, their operations. Hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, hazardous materials spills, cyberattacks, network outages and system failures—even a pandemic every century or so—can wreak havoc on an agency’s mission-critical operations. Consequently, it is imperative that every public safety agency has a crisis preparedness plan. This is particularly true of emergency communications centers that field 911 calls from the public and then dispatch the appropriate emergency response.

Tomorrow, March 25 at 2 p.m. Eastern, I will be joined by colleague Jackie Mines in hosting an educational session that will explore the most critical elements of a 911 crisis preparedness plan, including:

  • Identifying roles and responsibilities
  • Creating and distributing key messages to internal and external stakeholders
  • Measuring the plan's success

Last week, MCP presented a related webinar on crisis preparedness planning. Our panel of regional and state-level 911 directors from Minnesota, Nebraska and North Central Texas discussed best practices for mitigating major 911 service interruptions, including:

  • Continuity-of-operations planning (COOP) at state and regional levels
  • The importance of a crisis communications plan
  • The use of tabletop exercises to assess the organization's preparedness

The Basics Elements of a Crisis Preparedness Plan

Creating and distributing key messages to internal and external stakeholders are integral to effective crisis communications, which in turn are key elements of any crisis preparedness plans. The following are the basic elements of a crisis communications plan:

  • Identify all of the various audience groups. This will include at a minimum staff members, vendor representatives, regional partners, user agencies, mainstream media, social-media platforms such as Twitter.
  • Define roles and responsibilities. Does the agency have a public information officer (PIO)? If not, that role should be defined as one of the first actions in creating a crisis communications plan. While it is safe to assume that the PIO will lead the crisis communications effort and interact with external stakeholders, including the mainstream media, who will be that person’s backup? In a crisis, the PIO might not be available, especially if an emergency has rendered the agency’s facility inaccessible or uninhabitable.
  • Create the messaging. This has a lot of moving parts. The first step is deciding who will have a seat at the table. This will vary based on the type of crisis that the agency is experiencing. For instance, if the problem is a network outage or system failure, then the agency definitely will want to involve the appropriate technicians, who will be able to explain what happened, and more importantly how the situation is being corrected. The next major step is to decide the internal and external stakeholders who will need to receive communications—different stakeholders often will need to receive somewhat different messages.

These bullet points represent just the beginning of a crisis communications plan. Other critical elements include distributing the message, measuring the plan’s success, and ensuring that the plan is a living document that evolves over time. We’ll be exploring all of this and more in the webinar on March 25 and hope you’ll attend—we guarantee it will be time well-spent. To register, click here. We also would love to help you create or update a crisis preparedness plan—please reach out.

Sherri Griffith Powell is an MCP senior communications consultant. She can be emailed at SherriGPowell@MissionCriticalPartners.com.

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