10 Commandments of Municipal Crisis Control

When the media needs information, keep your cool and follow these communication guidelines.

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A pipe breaks. A sewer overflows. A project goes over budget. The media smells a story — they want answers, and they want them now. What do you do?

Hopefully, you have a communications strategy in place and a go-to list of contacts who can expertly answer incoming questions. Take it from those in the know: When it comes to crisis control, these 10 rules will come in handy.

1. Don’t say, ‘no comment’
Joseph Ryan, public information director for the City of Bayonne, N.J., says “no comment” infers you have something to hide. It builds a wall. Better to explain that you’re waiting for reports or because of safety or legal issues you can’t respond at the moment but will do so as quickly as possible. Then, make good on your promise. The media has a job to do, too.

2. Tell the truth
And don’t lie. Once you do, the media will never believe you again.

3. Keep everyone informed
Ian Chadwick, author, editor, media relations strategist and council member in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada, says there’s nothing more frustrating from the media’s perspective than not being able to find information or secure contacts when a story breaks.

Develop a chain of command. Have a department head meeting and determine who will handle calls when an event happens. This is especially important for smaller municipalities that might not have a communications director.

4. Have a go-to list
Establish a strategy. Create a list of contacts and distribute it to the media so they know whom to call as a situation develops. Provide a list of phone numbers and email addresses.

“Tell them, ‘In these situations you call the following people, and if you can’t get through to them, go to the next person on the list,’” Chadwick says. “There should be a top-down communications process in every municipality — who speaks for whom and who speaks for what.”

The process doesn’t have to be complicated, he says, but a printed list of responsibilities is essential.

“That’s the kind of thing you want to give out to everybody in the media and everybody on your staff. And make sure the politicians get a copy.”

5. Defer to those in the know
In an emergency, political leaders are likely the media’s first point of contact. But unless it’s a political situation, community leaders are better off deferring to operations experts.

“I know politicians believe they have an inviolate right to speak on every single subject. But in an emergency situation that often just compounds things, and you end up with mixed messages,” Chadwick says.

6. Be timely
Andy Ryan, media relations coordinator at Seattle Public Utilities, says that although the city treats each event according to the specifics of the situaiton, it encourages general guidelines and practices.

“The first one is to be immediately responsive and communicate frequently and accurately,” he says. “As a matter of practice, we want to be as open and honest and transparent with the media as we can possibly be.”

Information also should be fresh and timely. The media doesn’t want to hear about a burst water main that was fixed.

7. Create social media accounts
Don’t make the media report on rumors. In today’s world of instant information, people first turn to social media when an incident occurs. Often that information is inaccurate or incomplete. Be proactive. Create a Facebook or Twitter account. Chadwick recommends Twitter for short, fast, direct information. Designate someone to update accounts, especially on nights, weekends and holidays.

The City of Clear Lake, Iowa, provides RSS feeds to subscribers, and the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works offers an email notification system with up-to-date information on events or topics of interest. Seattle Public Utilities has a blog on its home page and simultaneously tweets what is put on the blog.

8. Build relationships
“You shouldn’t think of individual events as something that happened in isolation and that you’re going to talk to a journalist once and never deal with him again,” Ryan says. “The fact is you’re going to have long-term relations with the journalists in your community. And you want to be thinking about that from the time of the very first encounter. If they regard you as honest and forthright and accurate from the beginning, they will probably continue to regard you that way and think of you as a good source.”

9. Keep it simple
Assume the media doesn’t know the technical details of your job, especially issues involving engineering and planning terms. Avoid using acronyms or define those you do use. Explain the situation and why it happened in simple, basic terms.

10. Pick your battles
Mistakes happen. Nearly every story has an error, especially in daily journalism. But not every error warrants a correction.

“You have to decide how important that mistake is to your organization’s goals and objectives,” Ryan says. “A lot of times small mistakes are not going to harm your utility’s operations, and they’re nothing the lay public is really going to understand or care about. Just write those things off. If it’s more serious, then call the reporter and ask them to fix it. They almost always will.

“If you’re not getting satisfaction there, then you can ask for the editor. But that’s not something you want to do very often.”


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