Ada turns down the volume on the television. The national news is now reporting on the hurricane about to bear down on southeast Louisiana. They’re predicting a category three, but after 45 years living in the bayou, Ada’s intuition tells her it will be much worse.
Ada checks her email inbox again. No update yet from her boss or anyone on her staff. Ada works for the city manager in her town. Since COVID-19, she’s been working remotely, which has its conveniences, but it’s also left her feeling more disengaged from the usual office buzz that keeps her in the know when it comes to administrative happenings and critical decision-making.
Ada pulls up the town website. An Alert Center message on the top of the screen warns citizens to consider making plans to evacuate the area and encourages them to sign up for weather alerts with CivicReady®. Ada sighs heavily. If there is a risk that the storm could be so bad that citizens should evacuate, why is it that the town’s leaders have yet to send even one message to employees, letting them know what to expect? Should they evacuate too and continue to work remotely? Should field staff expect to work overtime? Will the town be closing non-essential administrative offices? If schools and daycares close and staff needs time off to watch their children, will extra paid-time-off be granted?
A dark cloud slides in front of the afternoon sun, and in the distance, Ada can hear a rumble of thunder. She nervously reloads her inbox only to see that there are still no internal employee emergency communications from her administration.
This scene may be fiction, but the fear and uncertainty that municipal employees feel during an emergency when they find themselves in an internal communication black hole are real. Public safety communicators have the vital responsibility of ensuring citizens remain safe during a crisis or disaster by providing crucial safety warnings, instructions, and proactive notifications. Whether the emergency is sudden such as an active shooter, or predictable, such as an impending hurricane, public safety communicators must remain acutely focused on continual, proactive safety communications across communication channels to protect citizens and travelers. These responsibilities become more than a full-time job during a crisis; however, local government leaders cannot take for granted that their employees will innately know what is expected of them in an emergency.
Every emergency communication safety plan must include a strategy segment that focuses on employee needs. If you have not already done so, spend the time now to proactively create a crisis communication plan that you can refer to during any emergency or disaster event. This editable template can help. You can also customize it by type of emergency, such as how you would respond to an active shooter versus a hurricane, as different types of disasters have different geographical scope and may or may not come with advanced warnings.
If you have an existing crisis communication plan that only exists in hardcopy format in a binder in your office, the recent shift to decentralized and remote work due to COVID-19 makes it imperative that you convert your hard copy plan to a digital asset that all stakeholders can access from any device at any time.
In addition, ensure your plan includes the following considerations for staff to enable them to conduct vital business effectively and safely while feeling valued and protected.
1. Whenever Possible, Communicate Internally First
Your employees should never learn of a municipal safety decision from the news or social media. The timing for emergency outreach must be understandably adapted based on the speed and scale of the disaster. For example, if an active shooter targets a public space, your immediate communication need must be to anyone in the area and then to the larger community. Alternatively, if a hurricane is predicted to impact your area next week, issue a statement to employees first or concurrently to inform them of your leadership’s expectations for business continuity during the event.
2. Communicate Continually
Just as you continue to update citizens on the disaster and recovery process, your employees will need continual updates that impact them uniquely, such as:
- The status of office closures or return to work expectations
- Overtime requirements
- Reminders of the availability of employee benefits such as health insurance, workers’ compensation coverage, and employee assistance program offerings
- The status of network access and communication tools if a natural disaster or network hack temporarily takes systems offline
3. Maintain Two-Way Dialogue
Like your citizens, your employees will need a mechanism to ask your leadership questions and receive timely, personal feedback. Plan to enable multiple communication channels, especially if a disaster may impact system access or decentralize and scatter employees’ physical locations. Ensure that you have the following internal communication mechanisms available in advance of any emergency:
- A dedicated, monitored email address
- An inquiry submission form available only to staff on your employee intranet
- A mass notification system with two-way polling to unite strategic decision-makers urgently during an emergency
A public relations worst-case scenario is that an employee takes to social media to vent publicly about your administration’s response to a crisis. If you don’t already have one, craft a social media policy for staff and your team personnel to ensure everyone knows what is and is not appropriate to share publicly on social media.
5. Collaborate Closely with Human Resources
Your HR team needs to be involved with any policy decisions or instructions that impact employee welfare, work hours or locations, or compensation. For example, if your administration decides to close its parks and recreation office as a safety precaution and cancel all programs for three weeks following a tornado devastating the area, the closure will impact salaries and contracted employees and their wage compensation.
In some jurisdictions, such decisions may come with mandated legal requirements and employee protections. Ensure you have tools and communication mechanisms in place to stay in close collaboration with HR, even if your offices are remote or decentralized during a storm.
Getting Started Building a Crisis Communication Plan
Download this editable crisis communication template to begin planning your internal communications and business continuity strategy now. If communication technology is your biggest concern, click here to learn how communities like yours use our CivicReady emergency mass notification system to keep employees informed during a local crisis or unexpected event.