Crisis management is one of the biggest challenges of social media for government agencies.
A fast-evolving situation can cause panic and confusion in your community, requiring you to communicate the latest information in a calm, clear manner to the public, stakeholders, and media.
Get it wrong, and you risk undermining confidence in your agency; get it right, and you’ll play a key role in mitigating the worst effects of the crisis. You’ll also position your agency as a trusted source working to keep your community safe.
Read on for six essential considerations for building an effective crisis communications strategy, plus three real-world examples of crisis comms from the world of government on social media.
1. Carry Out a “Crisis Audit”
No one expects government agencies to predict the future. But you can absolutely improve your preparation by running a “crisis audit” — a thorough investigation of your current crisis comms strategy — and digging into past events to understand the most likely future scenarios.
But crisis audits aren’t just about analyzing the types of crisis you’re likely to face; they’re also about planning your response. Look at:
- How similar agencies dealt with previous crises
- How they shared information with their target audiences
- How their responses were received by the media and general public
In some situations, a crisis audit might help you highlight future crises and prevent them before they occur. Even if that’s not possible, it should give you the tools to plan an effective response.
2. Develop a Plan for Disseminating Information
During a crisis, you might be fielding constant calls and emails from journalists while struggling to keep abreast of the latest developments from employees on the front line. With so much going on, you can’t afford to plan your strategy for disseminating information on the fly.
Admittedly, you can’t plan every element of your strategy upfront. But you should be able to broadly outline how you intend to reach your audience, including through:
- Social media
- Press releases
- Public statements
At this stage, you should define which channels are best suited to different types of communications. This is your crisis communications plan.
For instance, if you have breaking information that directly impacts your communities, should you release it to the media for maximum exposure? Or share it via your social media channels first to get the message out as quickly as possible?
3. Practice Your Crisis Communications Plan
Having run a crisis audit, you should have a decent understanding of the types of scenarios your agency is most likely to face. That means you can run through your crisis communications plan.
Consider booking a whole day for your team to run through a crisis scenario, giving them limited information, then presenting further developments throughout the session.
At each step, ask them to demonstrate how they’ll communicate with your audiences and consider who will be responsible for which elements of your crisis comms strategy.
Also, schedule time to regularly review your communications plan to ensure it’s still fit for purpose. Crises in other parts of the world (or country or state) might shed light on a gap in your strategy, so don’t be afraid to add new elements or remove unnecessary ones. Just be sure to communicate changes to your team.
4. Identify the Key Messages You Want to Convey
By their very nature, crises tend to be “noisy” events, with hundreds or thousands of people sharing information as the situation unfolds. The last thing you want is to add to the noise with unclear or unhelpful messaging.
For that reason, your first port of call when any crisis emerges is to identify the main points you want to get across to your audience. That way, you can ensure your messaging is focused and consistent.
Of course, those key points vary from one crisis to another. But generally speaking, they might include some or all of these:
- Sharing links to informational resources.
- Explaining how people affected by the crisis can access help.
- Providing clear instructions for people currently, or likely to be, affected.
- Detailing your response to the crisis.
- Discussing how you plan to prevent the crisis from reoccurring (if relevant).
5. Designate a Spokesperson
Another way to keep your messaging as clear and consistent as possible is to designate an expert spokesperson to communicate with the public, media, and other stakeholders.
To give an obvious example, if a major road traffic accident happens in your city, you might choose a transport or infrastructure manager as the public face of your response.
There are two major benefits to this approach:
- It encourages the public to look out for a “familiar face.” Every time they see your spokesperson, they know they will hear an official announcement from someone who knows what’s happening.
- It gives the media an expert source for further questions. Journalists will inevitably have plenty of follow-up questions after a crisis announcement. So it’s a big help to have an expert spokesperson who knows what they’re talking about.
6. Post-Crisis Communications Review
Building and maintaining an effective crisis communications strategy isn’t a one-and-done exercise.
Every challenge you face is an opportunity to test and hone your response. In the wake of a crisis, take the time to analyze your messaging and identify areas for improvement in a post-crisis review.
What went well? Did you successfully communicate the most critical information at each crisis stage? What would you do differently if a similar crisis broke out a week, a month, or a year down the line?
Continuous monitoring and evaluation will help ensure your crisis communications remain accurate, effective, and up to date.
3 Examples of Effective Crisis Communications for Government Agencies
We’ve looked at the theory behind planning your crisis communications strategy. Now, let’s consider three real-world examples of government agencies that put their plans into effect:
1. City of Boca Raton
Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September 2022, leaving a trail of destruction in its path.
While the City of Boca Raton wasn’t directly within the hurricane’s path, residents were understandably concerned about the potential impact of the natural disaster on their community.
With that in mind, the city leveraged social media to warn citizens about the likely repercussions of the hurricane — including heavy winds, rains, and flooding — and share ways for them to keep informed about the crisis:
We continue to monitor #HurricaneIan and potential impacts to our area. While South FL is out of the cone, we could see heavy rains, flooding & winds.
— City of Boca Raton (@CityBocaRaton) September 26, 2022
It also assigned designated expert spokespeople to discuss specific elements of the crisis response, such as the city’s Chief Building Official explaining efforts to secure construction sites:
We’ve been hearing concerns about what City staff is doing to secure construction sites, especially high-rise cranes.. Hear from our Chief Building Official about how staff is prioritizing the safety of residents and businesses. For more updates >> https://t.co/7iDaL3SGPW pic.twitter.com/lbSTMZXERj
— City of Boca Raton (@CityBocaRaton) September 28, 2022
Even if you don’t expect a crisis to impact your community significantly, be aware that your audience still wants to be reassured that you have a clear plan in place and are working to keep them safe.
2. Michigan Department of Natural Resources
In May 2022, a 2,500-acre fire broke out in the Blue Lakes area of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula following a lightning strike, forcing road closures and evacuations as emergency crews battled to contain the blaze.
Residents needed a trusted source of information about the blaze. Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) stepped up to the plate, creating a Twitter thread to share news and announcements as the crisis continued.
DNR firefighters and local partners are responding to an uncontained, 1,500-acre fire in Montmorency County northwest of Atlanta, named the Blue Lakes Fire. pic.twitter.com/xxdzKujLvF
— Michigan Department of Natural Resources (@MichiganDNR) May 13, 2022
This was a busy time for the MDNR, with its firefighters and local partners working around the clock to prevent the fire from spreading.
Despite this, the agency didn’t just keep its Twitter thread up to date; it also took the time to monitor responses from concerned citizens and reply with further information where necessary:
Thank you for asking about this. There are currently no additional evacuations and we don’t expect any in the immediate future. We will provide updates if that changes.
— Michigan Department of Natural Resources (@MichiganDNR) May 14, 2022
Ensure your team monitors multiple social media platforms throughout a crisis to identify common questions and concerns. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to respond to each question individually, you can use the findings to build a resource center of frequently asked questions.
3. City of Las Vegas
The City of Las Vegas faced twin crises in March 2020: not only was it forced to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, but it also had to find additional sleeping space for the city’s sizable population of unhoused people.
Its response — converting an outdoor parking lot into socially distanced sleeping units — drew criticism on social media from several high-profile figures, including former US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.
After criminalizing homelessness this year, Las Vegas is now packing people into concrete grids out of sight.
There are 150K hotel rooms in Vegas going unused right now. How about public-private cooperation (resources) to temporarily house them there? And fund permanent housing! pic.twitter.com/wxZ4ZD6Jtc
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) March 30, 2020
The city needed to respond.
It did so through a Twitter thread that added context and highlighted its efforts to find a better solution for those affected by the Covid-related closure of shelters across the city:
We don’t have enough mats for everyone. We are trying to get more but are having a hard time. We’ll continue to provide this temporary respite, while practicing social distancing, for anyone who is suffering from homelessness. We look forward to Catholic Charities reopening soon.
— City of Las Vegas (@CityOfLasVegas) March 30, 2020
Your crisis response is never going to satisfy everyone in your community. Your best approach is simply to be as transparent as possible, explaining what you’re doing to tackle the situation and building public trust in your crisis management efforts.
Featured image by Freepik.
Want to hear more about effective crisis communications strategies? Register for our upcoming virtual government social media conference.