by Brian Andrews, president, The News Directors
Have you ever walked into your office and been told something like this:
“Manager, there’s a reporter on hold, and did you see the camera crews downstairs in the parking garage?”
Or maybe you got a text message like this:
“Mayor says some guy with an iPhone followed her out of grocery store recording video and asking questions. She needs you to call her ASAP."
Or maybe it was a phone call like this:
“Did you see what the vice mayor just posted to social media? OMG!”
These are all perfect moments for a manager to exhibit leadership. You must take the control of the message. You must make sure the most important audiences are hearing directly from you with factual information. You must correct rumors and incorrect information as soon as you are aware of it.
ICMA’s recent Leading Edge Research on crisis management is a must read for all managers. Management of the media and preparation and response are key issues for every local government manager.
Before something manifests as a communications problem, it’s usually an operational problem. Are you on top of what’s happening in your organization? Are you aware of what may not be going right and its potential for grabbing headlines or the attention of local bloggers. Nip it in the bud before it becomes breaking news. Should it get out, know ahead of time what you need to say about it and to whom you need to say it.
When you can’t talk about the facts, talk about the process. While many scandals involving personnel make juicy headlines, there’s little you can say about them for obvious reasons. When the legal, administrative, or union-mandated process requires you not to reveal information about what’s happening, you can talk about the process to reach a resolution. Letting people know you’re on it and that a resolution can be expected in a certain timeframe is always a good place to start.
Invest in relationships now to know which platform will be your most effective communication tool in a crisis. It’s always good to know reporters, but sometimes it’s better to know their bosses. Which ones will give your local government a fair shake? Which ones have thrown you or your elected officials under the bus? While the local media can make a lot of noise, it might not be your most important delivery method for news. Ask your residents how they get their news. You’d be surprised. Something that you think blew up on last night’s local newscast may not have been seen by many people. A blog post you thought no one looked at might be the biggest stirrer of the pot in your community. Know your local media scene and the importance of each outlet. Know your local bloggers.
Has your team done a great job of building a strong following on social media, or through opt-ins for text alerts and emails? Use platforms you control. I’m a huge proponent of breaking your own news, good and bad, and steering your residents back to local-government-owned and operated platforms for official information instead of third parties like the traditional media.
In our digital age, we’re often on information overload. People scan their emails to see if they want to even open them. However, just about everyone looks at their text messages. Explore your local government’s use of texting platforms for sharing information in a crisis. You can text out more than words. You can text a link to a video. Text is information on demand and those who have opted in to receive your texts have already told you they want to hear from you!
We also like to recommend telephone town hall meetings for crisis events. Who has to the time to attend a meeting at city hall anymore? This gives residents a chance to ask direct questions of their local government or elected officials and receive a response in a talk-show style format. You can get thousands of the people on the line at once. The audio of the call can later be reposted as a podcast.
Finally, remember the JFK quote: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan." It takes a team to communicate well. Run things by your inner circle, use experienced consultants, and call other managers who’ve walked through the fire before to confirm your game plan before executing.
Brian Andrews, ICMA member, is president of The News Directors, a South Florida-based cnsulting firm that works with municipal governments on crisis management and communications.
Read more about crisis leadership and communication. including media management, in ICMA's Leading Edge Research Report, Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis.