(This article by Rick Dacri was published in the Maine Town City County Management Association July 2015 Newsletter)
If it can go wrong, it will. While some municipal managers may prefer to take the tact that a crisis will never occur on their watch, the more seasoned professionals understand that unfortunately, Murphy’s Law trumps. It is never IF a crisis occurs, but more likely, WHEN will the crisis happen. Readiness must include anticipation, preparation, mitigation and communication. Not having a crisis intervention plan is like driving 80MPH in the dark without headlights and not knowing there’s a hairpin curve up ahead. The likelihood of a safe arrival is quickly diminishing.
So what should you do to prepare? Here are 11 tips:
- Accept the fact that a crisis will occur sometime: Playing ostrich is not crisis planning. Prepare for what could go wrong.
- Anticipate what could happen: Plant closings, major fire, drug bust, or economic calamity. All require a response. While you can never anticipate everything (think Zumba), know how you would respond in a crisis and develop contingencies.
- Decide who will speak: Whether it’s the town manager or the mayor, or the police or fire chief, know who will be the face and voice of the community. Remember, the first rule of crisis management is knowing who is in charge. Have a spokesperson ready.
- Know your audience: Understand that you have many stakeholders who want to know what is going on and they want answers fast. Your stakeholders include residents, employees, elected officials, media, regulators and more. Ignore them at your peril.
- Understand your strategy and message: Know what has to be said and say it. Don’t wing it. Gather the facts. Get your message out quickly and be honest and transparent. At the same time, there will be times when circumstances will prevent you from telling all.
- Prepare for the media; Understand they have a job to do and they are not your enemy—or your friend. Be straight with them. Have a clearly identified spokesperson ready. Get your message out before they formulate another one. Put out a clearly written statement. Obviously, if you have created a positive relationship with the media before the crisis, your job now will be a bit easier.
- Utilize social media: People get their information, good and bad, through social media. Residents, the press and employees quickly turn to twitter, Facebook and your website for instant information. Educate your stakeholders in advance that this is how you get immediate and reliable communication.
- Talk to your employees: be clear about your message. Remember, residents and the press will likely seek out employees to get the “inside scoop.” Make sure employees know what to say.
- Don’t ignore emotion: You’re not a robot. Depending on the issue, empathy, sympathy, remorse and even anger is appropriate. If the town made a mistake, apologize. If the community was harmed, a smile will not be the best expression to show.
- Have a presence: Show that you’re in charge; that you’re on top of the situation. Be truthful and in control. If you don’t have an answer to a question, let them know you’ll get it for them. And then do it quickly. Never be wishy-washy or reticent.
- Communicate well: Frequent, timely and with clarity—that’s how you must communicate. In a crisis, people demand information. Without it they’ll fill in the blanks, often with misinformation. Remain out front.
Crises will always occur. How you handle them will either dampen or fan the flames. Preparation will minimize the potential chaos and will often generate you good will during a difficult period.
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