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Crisis Communications During Emergencies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Melissa Pinke
September 11, 2015

No matter where you are in the country, emergencies are occurring on a daily basis. If one of these events affected your business, are you prepared to react and notify employees right now? From actual emergency notifications related to hurricanes, office fires, power outages, earthquakes, tornadoes, suspicious packages and active shooters, these are some lessons learned regarding crisis communications.

Your emergency plan may need a few additional details to ensure urgent messages can be executed and understood quickly. Regardless of the event, people want to know that they are safe and the situation is under control, especially in times of crisis. Many emergency events do not occur during normal business hours, so it is important to remember that many decisions will be made and communicated to employees when they are outside the workplace.

As the situation gets worse, one of the decisions that need to be made is whether to continue with normal operating hours. For instance, in Birmingham, Alabama, in January 2014, the decision to close early due to winter weather was made too late. This resulted in many commuters stuck on interstates and highways. Thus, it is important to make timely decision so employees are prepared. Just like schools, include a timeframe for notification decisions in the plan.

Management often wants to protect employees from bad news. They are often afraid that panic will ensue. However, it is crucial to provide accurate, honest and timely information. The idea that people will panic is a myth often portrayed in movies. Panic comes when people feel their life is at risk and escape is impossible. Employees can better prepare and make more appropriate decisions when given truthful information.

Emergency plans also should identify decision makers as part of the crisis communication team. Their contact information should be updated regularly. Employees should be notified of a delay in operating hours, or sent immediately to an alternate location. Doing so can buy some time in assessing the situation.

Creating and approving messages during an event will cause delays. Therefore, general templates should be created and included in the emergency plan as well as in a crisis communication team’s handbook. Work out all of these details ahead of time, but keep in mind that they will likely need to be tweaked for the specific situation. Make sure your communicators can access the messages as well as technology from their location. Communicators must frequently practice using their technology to ensure skills are automatic and all employees should be familiar with the messaging system. Expired passwords and forgotten access can create further problems so sending test alerts on a routine basis keeps everyone aware of the process and ensures the system is operating effectively.

Employee notification systems also should be identified, as well as methods of communicating to the public. If using a passive system, such as posting to a website, be sure to outline how employees check for information. Having multiple message systems will help to address gaps in messaging. Also, if the identified methods of communication are unavailable, such as text messaging and emails, be sure that employees know what to do and where to meet as a default. Remember, the goal of crisis communications is to communicate!  Make sure employees receive the information.

Regardless of the format, the message should be clear, accurate and easy to understand. If multiple message delivery systems are used, such as texts or phone calls, be sure that individuals will understand the message and execute the proper action. Remember a text may have limited characters. Employees can always be referred to a website or email for more detailed instructions, but a text should convey the message in 60 characters or less. Even with emails, convey important information using words people can understand. Automated voice recordings can be difficult to understand and improperly enunciate certain words. Communicate actions, rather than the political jargon that satisfies policy.

Employees also should be informed of when updates will occur and those updates should occur even if no new information is available. If accurate and frequent information is not provided, employees will investigate on their own. Create a sense that management is in control and respects employees. If employees feel information is being withheld, trust will be lost.

If the business operates critical functions or activities that must continue regardless of the situation, the personnel responsible for these activities should be aware of their responsibilities. A good place for this to be identified, besides your emergency plan, is in individual job descriptions so that roles and responsibilities are clear to everyone. Those individuals who are required to report to work for critical functions need to have steps in place to take care of their families. Remember, their readiness is directly related to the organization’s ability to continue operations.

All organizations should take an honest look at their emergency plans, and work through a few worst-case scenarios. Exercises assist with determining what needs to continue, who needs to do it and where it must occur. Message templates can serve as guides to various scenarios and assist with verifying that the appropriate equipment and staff have been identified. By having a detailed and actionable plan, everyone will know who and what is involved and will be able to react quickly.

Author: Melissa Pinke is a doctoral student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University and provides organizational preparedness and training support through her consulting business, Code Pinke Crisis Planning, www.codepinke.us.

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