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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Judith Weshinskey-Price
September 12, 2014
Local governments have discovered that engaging in crisis communications during disaster can contribute to successful outcomes for citizens. However, they are not the only group that can benefit from crisis communications during a disaster. Employees of local government have need of the same levels of communication not only as citizens but also as employees.
Crisis communication is designed to inform and influence people to act in the “face of extreme, sudden danger” according to Regina E. Lundgren and Andrea H. McMakin in their book Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental, Safety and Health Risks. Local governments regularly engage in risk communication with citizens before, during and after a disaster. These communications inform citizens of what to expect, what actions to take and what resources are available to them to increase safety and decrease vulnerability. While local government employees benefit from this communication as citizens, they may have additional needs that are not met by the typical crisis communications content.
Employees need to be informed of what actions they need to take during a disaster event as employees, not just citizens. Their need for communication may be different from what should be communicated to the public. Some employees may be considered essential personnel and will be expected to report to work during a disaster even when citizens are being told to evacuate or shelter in their homes. Various employees may need a different level of information about the disaster or need the information presented in a different way than what is being communicated to citizens in general. This means that planning for crisis communications needs to consider internal needs separately from the needs of the public.
When planning crisis communication practices, local governments should make an effort to decide what information they feel is important to share and what actions should be recommended in various situations so that when a disaster does strike crisis communications can begin quickly according to Lundgren and McMakin. As part of the planning process, a report authored by Melissa Janoske, Brooke Liu, and Ben Sheppard emphasized that those engaging in crisis communications need to make every effort to understand the various audiences they are communicating with and how they differ in characteristics and cultural influence so that trust can be grown and the effectiveness of crisis communications increased.
These planning practices do not need to change when considering internal crisis communications for employees. Local governments should consider what information they will provide to employees during a disaster and how it will be different from what is provided to the general citizenry. Will employees need to know more details? Will the information need to be presented in different ways? Some employees will need different information as their concerns will be different based on their work responsibilities. The actions required of employees may be different from that of the citizens and even different amongst groups of employees. Some employees may need to understand that they are not needed at work and should stay away, making personal safety their top priority. Others, such as police officers, firefighters and emergency communications personnel, may be required to work during a disaster event and will need to know when and where to report and what their responsibilities will be.
The need to understand the audience in order to conduct successful crisis communications is also relevant when planning for internal communications. Various groups of employees may have different characteristics and needs than other groups. When considering first responders, the actions required of them may be similar such as reporting to work during the disaster and fulfilling their responsibilities in keeping the public safe during a hazardous event. There may be first responders who have dependent family members that must be cared for and kept safe. There may be those who do not agree with the label “essential personnel” or those who are on vacation and traveling who don’t’ know what action is expected from them. Crisis communications needs to provide the information needed by all of these groups so that the overall goals of local government are met during a disaster. Crisis communication for employees is just as important as that for citizens and should be planned for in a like manner though the content will differ.
Well-planned crisis communications for employees will not only contribute to the success of meeting local government goals during a disaster but will also benefit the employee-employer relationship. As Janoske, Liu, and Sheppard state in their report, the trust of an audience contributes greatly to the success of risk communications. If an audience trusts the entity providing the communication, the audience is more likely to take heed and comply so it is advantageous for an entity to work to gain that trust before crisis communications need to occur. What actions an employer takes to gain the trust of their employees’ will bleed into other areas and allow for a better relationship between employee and employer. In addition, successful risk communications will demonstrate to the employee that the employer has made provisions for them and considers their understanding of the situation and what they should do important. Successful risk communications will contribute toward building trust in and of itself and so contribute toward a positive employee-employer relationship that will provide rewards for all involved.
When a local government is experiencing a disaster event and must engage in crisis communications, the employees of that local government must be considered a separate audience from the general citizenry. Specific planning must occur and crisis communications must be provided so that specific employee concerns are addressed. While this will take additional time and effort on the part of those who plan for disaster and provided crisis communications, the rewards will be worth the effort.
Author: Judith Weshinskey-Price, MPA, ENP, RPL is an emergency communications manager. She can be reached at [email protected]