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Create Your Crisis Communication Plan and an Emergency Warning System

Written by Jennifer Elliott
Webinar Recording: Crisis Communication

Crisis communication planning for every government, large and small

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Your worst nightmare is that a disaster strikes your community. A flood, a bridge collapse, an act of terror. They are all fears that keep you up at night. Are you prepared to act fast enough? Do you have the infrastructure, staff, and planning in place to ensure expeditious, and informative communications that will reach as many citizens as possible? Don’t wait for a disaster to occur to test your communication plan. Be prepared in advance so that if the worst-case scenario occurs, you can step into action without hesitation or fear. Read on to learn where to start when building a crisis communication plan.

Start by Identifying Your Audiences

While your immediate concern is likely for the safety of your citizens, start your crisis communication planning by identifying all the audiences that you will need to communicate with if a disaster occurs. This list should include;

  • Citizens – Think about triaging communication to residents based on their proximity to the incident. For example, you may not need to communicate to all citizens in your County about a water main break, but you should communicate to everyone in, and traveling to, the immediate area.
  • Visitors – Don’t forget non-residents who happen to be in the area when a disaster strikes. They are just as much at risk of inclement weather and threatening situations.
  • Local Businesses ­­– Local disasters may have specific consequences for businesses in your community. As organizations that play an important role in your municipality, and that have key interactions with citizens, they will need to understand what events are occurring, how events may impact their business, and the role they can play in helping to manage the crisis and recovery efforts.
  • The Media – Your local and regional media outlets will want to know what events have occurred and what your administration plans to do to manage the situation all the way through the recovery process. The media will also be instrumental in helping you communicate potentially life-saving directions and instructions to citizens. Make sure contacts at all your local media outlets are part of your communication plan. You may also want to create a short list of members in your administration who can speak directly with the media. These individuals should receive advance crisis communication training, be familiar with key communication messages, and be introduced to media contacts so reporters know who to contact with questions or for comments.

Build Contact Lists and Establish Communication Channels in Advance

When a disaster occurs, it’s already too late to try to obtain contact information for all the audiences listed above, especially citizens. Start preparing for a potential emergency now by encouraging citizens to opt-in to receive emergency alerts. A government emergency notification system enables you to accept citizen opt-ins and utilize the same system to create and distribute emergency alerts to multiple channels, such as SMS/text message alerts, emails, and voice messages.

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Make Sure You Have a Way to Reach Visitors

Make sure your communication plan includes a strategy for reaching visitors in the area—non-residents who wouldn’t have signed-up to receive emergency alerts. Your local media outlets will offer a channel to help reach visitors. In addition, consider a strategy to distribute messages to digital road signs in your community.

If you implement an emergency warning system, be sure to choose a solution that integrates with the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS). Created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), IPAWS leverages national emergency communication channels to provide area-specific alerts in times of emergency. It’s capable of sending notifications to all cell phones within a specified area without being delayed by network congestion. It can interrupt local TV and radio broadcasts to share important notifications. It can even post notifications to digital road signs and various other locations instantaneously.

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Coordinate Planning Efforts with Safety Officials

Make sure your communication plan includes contact information for local public safety officials and a strategy for who is responsible for communicating with them. Work with your local safety officials in advance to co-create protocols and procedures for how best to work together to communicate key safety information and instructions.

Establish Infrastructure and Training for Communication Triage

Once you have established your audiences, and have planned your communication channels, you can put together a communication triage strategy. Be sure to include the following elements:

  • Call center staffing – Expect your administration will receive a higher than normal volume of calls from all your audiences. Create a plan to staff your call center accordingly, or even redirect incoming calls to a second call center if possible.
  • Ensure key staff are trained in updating your local government website – Your municipal website will be one of the first places that citizens, visitors, and the media go to find the latest information regarding the current disaster. Make sure key members of your emergency communication team are trained on how and where to publish emergency alert information on your municipal website. When a disaster strikes, and every second counts, you can’t waste time trying to make updates to your municipal website using a cumbersome, difficult content management system (CMS). The ideal website management solution will allow you to publish emergency alerts from a mobile device, since you never know where you’ll be when an emergency occurs.
  • Integrate with social media. To amplify the reach of your message, make sure your communication triage plan includes a distribution of alerts via available social media channels. The ideal government emergency mass notification system will integrate with social media, allowing you to create a single message that is sent to notification subscribers, posted to your local government website, and shared on social media.
  • Ensure you have an internal communication strategy. A plan for external communications is essential, but don’t overlook the importance of building a plan for internal stakeholders to communicate with one another as well. In a crisis, local government administrators need to be able to alert and convene key personnel instantly. Be sure your communication plan can be implemented even if the disaster has disrupted cell service. A valuable emergency notification system will include an integrated conference bridge that will allow you to connect decision makers to one another on a unified call within seconds to enable urgent next step planning.

By defining your audience, planning your communication channels in advance, collaborating with emergency personnel, and creating a triage plan, you’ll have built the foundation for a crisis communication plan that will keep your citizens informed and safe in the event of a local emergency.