Ask the Expert: Managing Crisis in Local Government with Brian Andrews

Insight into the biggest gaps in local government crisis communication strategies.

ARTICLE | Oct 20, 2016

It is important to recognize that a crisis communication plan is just as important as any other plan when providing for the health and safety of your citizens. Local governments that have effective crisis communication strategies in place provide citizens with a model of how to live through a crisis, deal with the feeling of fear, and empowers people to act despite their fear. And giving citizens worthwhile things to do and the ability to make a contribution can give people hope during the worst of times.

Brian Andrews, President of The News Directors, Inc., offers insight into the biggest gaps in local government crisis communication strategies, internal and external challenges, as well as provides tips on how to leverage technology during a crisis. The News Directors, Inc. assists city managers, communications directors/PIO’s, and elected officials as special advisors during times of distruptive change, including: high profile arrests and police shootings to man-made and natural disasters.

ICMA: From your perspective, as a crisis and public affairs consultant, what do you see as the biggest gaps in local government crisis communication strategies?

ANDREWS: The basics tend to go right out the window when an organization is engulfed in crisis. The most basic of issues to address is who will be doing what BEFORE a crisis hits. You’ve had a refresher conversation with your staff about this recently, right? Also, crises tend to break and extend their reach outside of normal business hours. Your plan may need to include overnight and early morning staffing, depending on the severity of the situation. Yes, you may need someone tweeting at 4-am or dealing with the reporters fronting live shots on your big story for early morning TV news shows.

There are other basics like identifying who has the passwords for social media accounts (what if that person isn’t reachable?), who is authorized to post on social media in a crisis (fewer people means more control of what goes out), who will be handling the traditional media, and who’s saying what to people calling the city hall switchboard asking what the heck is going on!   

Just as important to consider is how the Mayor and Council will be notified of what’s happening.  They don’t want to see it on social or traditional media.  They want to hear it from you. Once they have been told, what will you tell the rest of your employees?  How will you get that information to them?

ICMA: How can Communications Directors, Public Information Officers and City Managers work together in developing a successful plan?

ANDREWS: Several times a year, your Communications Directors or PIO’s should be meeting with the City Manager to have “what if” discussions.  Remember when we were kids and we would have fire drills in school? We’ll, it’s the same concept. Think about what COULD happen. What would you do if it were to happen? Do all crucial members of your team know their role?

ICMA: Before the next question, any other tips on crisis communications strategies for the manager?

ANDREWS: While it’s important to deal in facts during a crisis, do not forget to show compassion. Be human. Empathize. People may not remember exactly what you said, but they will remember how you said it and how it made them feel. Words are important. Choose your words wisely. Also, keep in mind, people will remember the strangest things during crisis response, like what you were wearing, whether you coughed or cleared your throat, or even the color of the wall behind you in a news conference or social media video statement.

Finally, remember the buck stops with the City Manager. The best crisis communicators provide several courses of action and make a recommendation on which is the best one to take. Surround yourself with experienced people to guide you. No one needs to know it’s your first rodeo.  City Manager should be making the big calls in a crisis on what information is being released, with the help of seasoned advisement.

ICMA: What do you see as the biggest external challenges for the local government leader?

ANDREWS: The world has changed so quickly in the way we communicate and absorb important information that many cities have not budgeted for the right positions and resources to keep up. Invest in c

ommunications and the people who will be communicating for you. Junior staffers assigned PIO duties may not be up for the challenge. In a crisis, they could be a liability for your city. They need training. They need resources. Your more senior-level staffers need to stay current. “I’m not good with social media,” is not the answer you want to hear from your veteran PIO or communications director. “I hate reporters,” is something else you don’t want to hear. Your team needs to know how to take ownership of any situation. Take time to confirm they’re getting out of the office to meet people (including other PIO’s) and that they’re joining regional media coalitions. Each city should have monies set aside for content creation, equipment, and additional man power hours, if needed, to deal with a crisis situation. Make sure key members of your team have basic FEMA G-290 and G-291 classes under their belts. These are free. For the deeper dive, budget for consultants and ongoing training like my company provides. 

Other things to consider:

  • DO NOT WAIT to build relationships. There are some you know you’ll need ahead of time to calm tense situations when they happen. And, know your faith based leaders and the leaders of other important segments of your community.
  • Have cell phone numbers but don’t rule out an in-person visit. In a crisis, one well-placed phone call providing factual public information can shut down a disruptive protest, or even end the crisis all together. When you can’t talk about the facts, talk about the process!
  • Make sure you are monitoring what’s being said about your city in both social and traditional media and correct inaccurate and misleading information immediately. Postings during a crisis could contain important images or statements your legal counsel may need to reference at a later date. Also, don’t engage in unpleasant online exchanges. They never end well.  Instead, respond by asking the person venting to voice their concerns in a phone call with your office, or guide them on the correct procedure for filing a complaint with the city.

ICMA: Difficult questions from the public and media can be a tough challenge for local government spokespersons. Can you offer up some insights or best practices to prepare for this challenge?

ANDREWS: At even the slightest whiff of a potential scandal or crisis situation, start asking your management team to help you formulate solid answers to tough questions. Play the role of a reporter. Think about what they might ask you. It’s OK to say you don’t know as an answer to their questions. Stick with what you know for sure: the facts. Talk with your crisis communications consultant and City Attorney before speaking to the media about any matters that could result in litigation.  

ICMA: How about news conferences? How can leaders prepare for them?

ANDREWS: It’s YOUR news conference, not the media’s or someone else’s. Take measures to make sure your news conference is not hijacked by outside political forces who show up at the last minute asking to stand with you or behind you as you face the cameras.  You control how long it goes.  You control what you say.   Finally, never hold a news conference in a place you don’t have an easy way to enter or exit.Don’t read a statement on camera.  Speak from the heart, with conviction, focusing on 2 or 3 bulletin points. Watching someone read a prepared statement on video is like watching paint dry. Even worse, I saw one national news conference where the person reading the statement misread the statement and botched the names of people who were killed. Not good. Plus, by writing out a statement, you’re creating a paper trail of public records. At a later date, someone could try to jam you up by asking to see earlier drafts of the statement as a public records request. Plus, written statements have their way of rearing their ugly heads in court years later when your crisis ends up in a lawsuit. Be sure to anticipate public records requests and legal questions before they arise. Figure out who on your team will handle that task. If the crisis involves an employee, chances are someone is going to request to see personnel files, e-mails, and even photos or video of this particular employee at city events. There is no reason to WAIT to gather up materials. If you can see the storm coming, you might as well get your house in order before it strikes.

ICMA: Another challenge is managing the crisis internally with all employees. How can local government leaders ensure that their staff is involved from the get-go?

ANDREWS: I use the example of police notifying “next of kin” before they release the name of someone who died. It’s the same concept. Your employees are your next of kin. When you don’t provide them with factual information, you ignite the rumor mill and force them to go elsewhere, often outside the city, to find information, that isn’t always correct. Cities need to determine the best way to share important messages with internal audiences before they launch it to the public.

Cities also need to anticipate leaks. How you feel about leaks usually depends on which side of the leak you are on. Hold leakers accountable. Your IT and Legal Departments have a number of tools at their disposal to track the flow of information leading to the identity of at least the device that was used to send unauthorized communication. 


ICMA: We are seeing a wave of crisis communication response through the form of technology. What are ways organizations can leverage mobility in crisis communications?

ANDREWS: You can push out factual information at lightning speed on social media. This is where it’s at right now. Your local TV and Radio stations would like to say otherwise, but, let’s face it, they’re getting their information from social media too. Make sure your website is updated, but, make sure your city’s social media platforms are fresh. When something big is happening, most people are going to see it (and share it) on Facebook or Twitter. Here in Florida, The State Division of Emergency Management is launching a new tool for cities. It’s a dashboard that can be accessed from any device that lets you move important information out to the masses along a number of platforms, including a reverse-911 style application and opt-in call out list.        

The bottom line is move fast when you’re in crisis. It’s been said that whomever speaks first usually controls the trajectory the conversation and reporting on your crisis takes. A simple tweet or post to social media that you’re aware of the situation and are looking into it sends a strong message to the public that you’re on it!   Early on, establish your social media channel as THE OFFICIAL channel for all information that comes directly from the city. Make sure your city is leading the narrative and SPEAKING FIRST, even when the news is negative. It’s better to take your licks and move on to the solution, then to prolong the beating by taking too much time to address the issue head on. 


ICMA: How have you been focusing your efforts to support the municipalities in Florida?

ANDREWS: Routine issues have the potential to become a city’s next crisis headline. They can also be a city’s next POSITIVE headline. Often, our city’s forget to share good news, or, share a great story in a format or medium that few people will see. Remember, it’s all about getting the right information to the right audience.

As a consultant, I spend a good chunk of my time doing analysis of operations, planning for possible crisis issues, and training staff on best practices for communicating to the most important audiences. In addition to working with our cities on content creation and video production, we write speeches, handle media relations, set up Telephone Town Hall meetings and rumor control hotlines on issues generating controversy. We work on retainer with some cities. Others use our professional services “a la carte” on a project basis or hourly rate. I field calls at all hours.  When we’re in full-on crisis mode, I’m attached at the hip to the City Manager and Incident Commander. As a city resource, all of the elected leaders know they must speak to the City Manager to request our advisement on official business before speaking directly with me.  At the end of the day, I work for the Manager. Aside from planning for and responding to crisis situations, we do everything from creating videos and online content to setting up telephone town hall meetings and rumor control hotlines.Our job is to help get that information to the relevant audience. What’s good news to you may not be of interest to any of your local media. That’s fine. That’s why you have Facebook, Twitter, your cable access channel, video monitors at city facilities, e-blasts, etc., etc.  

With each Manager’s permission, our team likes to meet as many city employees as possible so they understand our role when they see us during difficult times. We like to empower every employee to “ring the bell” when they detect an issue on social media or a rumor in the community.  It’s been said that success has many Fathers. Failure is an orphan. 


Brian Andrews spent two decades as an investigative journalist and news manager. From natural and man-made disasters to political crisis, he's had a front row seat to some of the biggest stories of our generation. Brian has worked at both the network, local, and international level, including a stint in Bogota, Colombia as the Director of RCN's english language news. He is perhaps best known for his time as one of the Miami market's marquis TV News personalities.

Brian helps guide clients before, during, and after a media crisis. He also supervises audits of Public Affairs/Public Information Services for our clients and participates in executive media training sessions.

 

For more on crisis communication, follow ICMA.org/DisruptiveChange, an area of centralized resources that focus on planning and preparedness for the disruptive challenges that local government leaders and their staffs face. 

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