One of the challenges of communicating during a crisis is to ensure that your messages are closely coordinated with local authorities — police and fire departments, emergency medical services and local government. Not coordinating with these local authorities can easily make a minor crisis grow into something much worse.
Consider this example: Imagine you’re head of corporate communications and you’ve just learned that a small fire in your factory has caused a toxic gas to leak. Unfortunately, a small amount of the toxic material has been released to the atmosphere before the leak was plugged. After careful measurement your scientists have concluded that the amount released was well below any kind of danger level. Based on this information, you and your crisis team issue a statement to the public and your employees detailing that the small fire has been put out and there were no injuries.
You’ve decided that there’s no need to alert the public or the media, or even your own employees about the small release since it was essentially harmless. Why alarm people unnecessarily? Nonetheless, you report to the mayor’s office, police and fire departments that there was a small, inconsequential chemical release. You dutifully share the careful measurements made by your scientists showing that the release is of no danger to the environment or to people.
However, unbeknownst to you, the mayor’s office decides to err on the side of caution and issues a public advisory warning. While the advisory states that the amount of toxins released is “not likely to be harmful,” it goes on to advise “prudent avoidance” — people should “try” to stay indoors “if possible” for the next few hours as a precautionary measure.
Now the public has gotten a message about their safety, but not from your company. Worse, your employees learn about the mayor’s advisory but haven’t heard anything yet from their own organization, causing them worry, confusion and anger. Because of their close proximity to the toxic emission they fear they might be in greater danger than the general public.
To the public, the media and your employees, the advisory from the mayor’s office makes it appear as if your company is playing down the danger or obfuscating. And the backlash against you in news, social media, community relations, customer relations and employee relations can be swift and unforgiving. Because of uncoordinated messaging, the minor crisis of the fire and emission has grown into a much bigger crisis, one that seriously threatens your hard-earned public reputation and employee relations.
This example shows why it’s vitally important for local authorities to be active participants in your organization’s crisis exercises. Full-scale, joint crisis exercises that involve local authorities are the only way to ensure close coordination of crisis-related messages during an actual crisis.
In our scenario, had there been a close working relationship developed through joint crisis exercises, the mayor’s office would not have acted unilaterally to issue an alert, but would have first informed your crisis team that an alert was being considered. At that time, you could have argued your case that an alert was not necessary. If the mayor’s office insisted on going ahead with an alert as a precautionary measure, your organization could then have reinforced the mayor’s messages by communicating the same information both to the public and to your employees. A major crisis would have been averted.