Definitions and Examples
Crisis communications anticipates, prevents, and manages information about sudden threats to an organization’s basic reputation for honesty and effectiveness. Having a crisis communications plan in place, for example, can prevent a local health department from being criticized by the public for failing to anticipate a disease outbreak, failing to respond quickly and effectively to a disaster, or misleading the public. Emergency risk communications anticipates, prevents, and manages information about sudden threats to public health and safety, usually related to environmental exposure. For example, emergency risk communications is needed during a public health emergency, such as an incidence of terrorism or an outbreak of food-borne illness.
In 2001, crisis and emergency risk communications became a public health priority during the anthrax episode. Public health officials lost a great deal of credibility when the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services falsely implied that the lethal anthrax was naturally occurring rather than man-made, and as CDC officials tried to avoid media contact when they were unsure of the facts.
In 2003, the need for competence in crisis communications became even clearer during the SARS outbreak. When Toronto officials responded so unconvincingly, news organizations found their own experts to explain what was going on, and they sharply criticized the public health officials in charge.
In both cases, the authorities lost control of the story.
Creating an Action Plan
The importance of effective communications during a public health disaster is not new. In 1947, the New York City Health Department responded brilliantly to a smallpox outbreak. This response convinced most New Yorkers to accept health department advice about vaccination, avoided panic, and may have saved many lives. Key to this success was the health department’s preexisting credibility with the news media, which it earned by proactively providing accurate information over many years.
Local health departments should develop an action plan well in advance of any crisis. Crisis and emergency risk communications begins with preparation, based on reasonable predictions about events that could occur.
- Start by making a list of potential sudden threats to public health or to the LHD’s reputation.
- Take time to develop candid, ongoing, “beforehand” relationships with news media, opinion leaders, potential spokespersons, and your counterparts in other agencies.
- Be prepared to use numerous communications channels. An organization cannot just rely on large news organizations to transmit local health messages—social media, schools, religious and civil rights leaders, foreign language media, health care professionals and providers, public safety and law enforcement officials, and others must be engaged, as well. These sources can best be reached through honest, supportive, and fast responses to people’s concerns.
- Reach out to key stakeholder sources, consolidate your contact information, and prepare a tentative chart for engaging multiple sources. Keep the chart confidential, as appropriate. Then keep it up to date. Here is a partial example:
Source for reaching the audience
|Washington High School students and parents
||Delores Tuttle, Principal; Andi Sullivan, RN, School Nurse
|Office and direct-line phone numbers, FAX numbers, cell and home phones, email addresses, etc.
|Andi worked with us on Project Smart
|Large congregation of Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church
|Rev. Chalmers V. Nottingham, Pastor; John Jameson, Elder
||May be suspicious of public health
|Large African-American community
||Zuliman Toya Noyes, Esq. (outspoken civil rights leader with significant following)
||We had a very productive lunch at Sam’s Diner—but he expressed reservations about our director
|Large Chinese-American community
||Port State Chinese News: Hsiao Chang, Editor; Muriel Wang, health reporter
||Circulation of 8,000 statewide, but in Mandarin, and many older citizens speak Cantonese only
|St. George’s Medical Center
|Ken O’Brien, FACHE, CEO; Tim Santos Macmillan, Communications VP
||Ken chairs county emergency preparedness committee
|Deputy Sheriff Elsie Hubbell; Police communications director Stan Heard
||Best time to reach is 8 AM
|Social media users
|Facebook and Twitter accounts
Tip: Complementary Messages
Complementary messages that can be expressed by both public health and political leaders. Political leaders usually emphasize that they are in control of the situation and that the community is safe.
The Five-stage Lifecycle of a Crisis
Crises display a cyclical pattern. Following a dormant phase, the cycle begins with a shocked public reaction to a critical event or finding, and it ends with public retrospection in the aftermath of the crisis.
Experts have identified five stages of the crisis and emergency risk communications cycle: pre-crisis, initial response, maintenance, resolution, and evaluation. Each stage requires a unique set of activities. Here are some selected activities, by stage.
- Prepare action plan
- Foster alliances and relationships
- Acknowledge the event with empathy
- Explain and inform the public about the risk in clear terms—what is known, what is not known, and the plan and timetable for learning more
- Establish spokesperson credibility
- Provide contacts for more information
- Commit to ongoing communication with stakeholders and the public
- Help the public understand the continuing and emerging risks
- Provide comprehensive information to those who need it
- Gain support for response and recovery plans
- Obtain feedback from stakeholders and audiences and correct misinformation
- Promote decision-making based on a reasonable assessment of risks and benefits
- Persuade the public to support commitment of resources
- Promote the LHD’s capability
- Evaluate performance
- Document lessons learned
- Recommend and implement specific actions for improvement.
Tip: Crisis Management Requires Training
“Leaders should be required to have education, training, and practice in crisis and risk communications.”
Laura H. Kahn, Who’s in Charge? Leadership During Epidemics, Bioterror Attacks, and Other Public Health Crises, 2009.