Crisis Preparation is Key

April 10, 2007

About the author: Jack W. Moyer is emergency management director for URS Corp. He can be reached at 919/461-1100 or by e-mail at [email protected].


It is absolutely critical to be prepared with a crisis communication plan (CCP) to address the public and the media following incidents involving your water or wastewater plant. Despite the best prevention in the world, incidents will happen and your preparedness can make a huge difference in the outcome.

Poor crisis communications planning can turn one disaster into two. Your CCP is nearly as important in the overall outcome of an event as your spill prevention control and countermeasures (SPCC) plan, for instance. These incidents can be natural disasters, accidents within your operation, incidents within your organization or incidents involving others that potentially affect your organization.

The material presented in this article will cover breakdowns and negative incidents in which your organization had a role; these are the most challenging kind. It will also cover operational accidents and incidents, because these are most relevant to this audience.

Information containment

Rumors will inevitably spread, especially if there is an information vacuum. Your job is to fill that vacuum with the best information possible. Be prepared to address misinformation that will inevitably arise. Prepare for this aspect of incidents in your organization just like you prepare for other aspects. The news release is just as important as the containment boom. In an abstract sense, the news release is an “information containment boom.”

Although there is a somewhat greater expectation of openness on the part of public agencies, the principles of public communications are largely the same for both public and private organizations.

The basics

This section will cover the basic principles of crisis communications that will play out throughout the rest of this presentation. These basics are:

  • Preparation—have a CCP.
  • Swiftness—following incidents, mobilize your CCP quickly. Like spill response plans, your crisis communica- tion measures must be implemented swiftly. Continue to provide timely information throughout the incident.
  • Presentation—present a positive image of your organization and your preparation for the type of incident that has occurred.
  • Accessibility—you must be accessible to the public and the media.
  • Factuality—your message must be completely honest and factual.
  • Practice—practice your CCP along with all other aspects of your incident preparedness. Include your CCP in your incident follow-up analysis.

The reality of the media

Like it or not, the media is the primary means by which we communicate with our customers, stakeholders and the public. Networks such as CNN are our link to the world. They can work for you or against you. That is largely determined by how you work with them. The different media sectors appreciate different forms of information. Be prepared to “feed” all of them. Television appreciates live video clips that can coincide with news programming. Newspapers like more in-depth interviews and factual material.

For major evolving situations, establish a regular place and time for media updates, generally twice per day, such as 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. This location should be near the incident location, EOC, etc., but at a sufficient distance to keep the media out of the way.

The media, especially television, will want photos or video shots of the incident or your organization. Work with them to accommodate this demand. Remember that they have helicopters and telephoto lenses, so they will find something no matter what.

If possible, try to prevent public dissemination of particularly dramatic shots. Also, try to prevent the acquisition of photos or video that directly link your organization’s name or icon to negative conditions—for example, a picture of law enforcement officers near the sign at the entrance to your facility.

If your organization is large enough that you can envision an incident generating significant mobilization of the media, you should consider reaching out to them in advance. Invite them to an open house at your facility and show them how you operate and what you do to protect the environment, for example.

In addition to the media, use whatever other public communications are at your disposal, especially those that you use routinely, such as your organization website. If you already use them, even blogs and automated notification systems can be valuable. Ensure that the messages are consistent between the different channels.

Prepare your employees and other key stakeholders

Educate your personnel in advance on their role in speaking to the media. There are two schools of thought on this.

The first is that personnel should be instructed to never tell the media anything. The second is that personnel should be empowered to tell the media a level of information that is consistent with their responsibilities.

For instance, an employee stringing a containment boom can tell the media that he or she is stringing a containment boom. When the media ask the employee the volume of the spill, when it will be cleaned up, etc., the employee should tell the media he or she does not know that information. Yet it can be difficult for many people to say “I don’t know.” That is why this author cautiously subscribes to the second school of thought.

When an incident occurs in your organization, aggressively and openly educate your employees on the “company line.” They will be asked about it extensively off the job and they must know how to respond. They will not all always say exactly what you want them to say, but it will certainly be better than, “I don’t know, they don’t tell me anything!”

People can do crazy things in front of a TV camera, microphone, etc. All personnel who may be placed in a situation of crisis should be trained in doing so, even including taped simulated situations. They should be cognizant of body language, eye contact, gestures, etc.

You should also prepare others who may hold a stake in a potential incident at your facility. If an incident at your facility has the potential, for instance, to cause a public health concern, involving the public health agency will make it a much more valuable partner in the incident.

Prepare your message

Your message should be clear and concise. Prepare, in advance, drafts of messages that cover known potential incidents that could occur in your company/agency/operation.

It is much easier to prepare a statement in the heat of an incident if you have prepared a draft format in advance. For every type of incident for which you have made other preparations, you should also have draft public information messages.

These messages can be developed in a flow chart format: “If this happens, this is the message; if this is also involved, add this.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently developing a model for this under the name “Message Mapping.”

Put a face on your organization

Have a designated public information officer (PIO) who is the primary liaison with the media agencies and who provides many of the routine updates.

There should be a single designated voice of the agency or company, generally as high in the organization as possible—think Rudy Guliani after Sept. 11th.

The public wants a face on your company or agency. It is much easier for them to build hostility toward an unseen or changing enemy than a consistent high-level representative.

The PIO should be backed up in person by experts who are able to answer questions that the PIO cannot. This also shows the solidarity of the organizational leadership.

Be honest

Stick to the facts. If you do not know something or are not able to determine it, say so. Accentuate the positive, but don’t try to sweep the negative under the rug.

Be honest and do not sugar-coat a situation. Do not seek to place blame, unless it belongs elsewhere with 100% certainty. It is much better to “take your lumps” early than to have to cover your tracks later. If the public catches you lying, it will never trust you again.

Don’t use technical jargon or try to “snow” audiences. Technical jargon will anger them and lead them to believe that you are trying to get the message past them. They will see through your attempt to do this. Be compassionate and sincere.

Consult your legal counsel as needed. It is my opinion, however, that the message should not be something that has obviously been crafted by attorneys. It is much better to say, “Indications are that we messed up and we are going to do everything we can to correct the situation,” than to say, “We are conducting an investigation and are not at liberty to release any additional information at this time.”

You can be honest, offer help and accept a degree of responsibility without legally admitting guilt.