Six Phases in the Crisis Communication Life Cycle:
Managing the Crisis Communication Operation

The first minutes and hours of an incident are often the most critical.  Setting the proper communication course, and then managing that course, are crucial when dealing with a WMD, terrorism, or all-hazards incident.

Step 1. Verify the situation.
The information that is disseminated by the media during the early stages of a WMD, terrorism, or all-hazards incident may be unintentionally slanted.  The communication team must critically judge that information, attempt to reasonably verify the magnitude of the event, and seek additional information to put public/media interest regarding the event into perspective.  For example,

  • Relay current, factual information to incident managers.  Add details as they become available.
  • Establish credibility.
  • Verify the source and credibility of the information (formal/informal)
  • Determine whether or not the information is consistent with other sources.
  • Clarify information through input from subject matter experts.
  • Begin to identify staffing and resource needs to meet the expected media and public demand for information.
  • Estimate the level of public information that needs to be disseminated as well as the level of media interest that the communication team needs to manage.  Consider the following questions.
    • How is the event evolving?
    • Is the outcome uncertain at this time?
    • Is this the first, worst, biggest, etc.?
    • Did the event occur in a metropolitan area with many media outlets or in a sparsely populated area with fewer media?
    • Is a product, service, or industry potentially involved?
    • Does the event have regional, national, or international implications?
    • Does the event involve children or special populations?
    • Are sensitive international, trade, or political relations involved?
    • Will a criminal investigation need to be investigated?
    • What will communication team staffing requirements be?
    • Does the communication staff have special needs (child care, for example)?
    • What are the best methods for sharing information?
    • What audiences are targeted?

Step 2. Activate the CCT.
Using procedures outlined in the CCP, notify and activate members of the CCT.  Deploy personnel to locations in which they can efficiently and effectively provide public information support to the incident response and recovery.

Step 3. Contact communication partners.
Coordination involves sharing information with the communication team and with service vendors and other partners who may be involved in the response effort.  For example, the communication team may coordinate the emergency communication response with PIOs from the local health department, the local module of the American Red Cross, etc.
The CCP should identify those contact persons who will be working with the communication team during any major incident.  The plan should also reference contacts according to their function.  For example, if animals are involved in the incident, communication staff needs to coordinate communication efforts with a veterinary representative and/or local animal control.

Step 4. Activate the CCP
Gather information and determine the severity of the situation and its potential impact on communication operations, resources, and staffing.

Use the call-out procedures identified in the CCP to activate the crisis communication team.  Call in only those who are needed during the first 24 hours.  If the incident appears to be a long-term event, requiring more than 24 hours and/or multiple days, divide the CCT into shifts.

The more quickly coordination and communication with support vendors and other partner organizations is est., the more smoothly and precisely the crisis communication operation functions. The CCP should include comprehensive contact information of all of the people who must be notified.

Notification messages should contain only the information that has been properly verified.  It may be useful, however, to characterize the event from a public/media perspective.  If the event is likely to produce intense media and public interest, share that opinion with those contacted.

Contact the IC and the EOC and advise the leadership that the CCP has been activated.  Organize the designated crisis communication team workspace in the location identified in the CCP.

  • Set up the Crisis Communication team
  • Continue to gather and verify facts.  What happened?  What is being done to keep the incident from escalating?
  • Determine what is being done to address this crisis.  Is an investigation underway?  Who’s involved in the investigation?
  • Determine what actions other agencies/organizations are taking.
  • Determine who is affected by this crisis.  What are their perceptions?  What do they want and need to know?
  • Activate media monitoring.
  • Activate Internet monitoring.
  • Determine what is being said about the event.

Step 5.  Organize team assignments.

  • Are meetings being held that communication staff should attend?
  • Are all communication teams operations (media, public, partner, stakeholder, support)?
  • What are the current priorities?
  • What resources are needed? Is staffing sufficient?
  • Have the appropriate subject experts (SMEs) been contacted to stand by?  Have these SMEs been approved by the leadership?
  • Will the communication staff be expected to travel?
  • Are supplemental funds needed?
  • Is contractor support needed?
  • Is the information across various media sources being monitored for consistency?
  • What are the operational hours?  Should the communication team operate 10, 12, 20 or 24 hours a day?  Will those hours continue for five, six, or seven days a week?

Stagger work hours to ensure continuity in the crisis communication operation.  Do not rotate staff in such a way that entire crews of uninformed staff replace entire crews fully informed staff.  Fresh workers will be needed to relieve members of a core group.  For example, stagger shifts within a 24-hour period so that some staff work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. while others work 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. and still others are arrive at noon and work until midnight.

The PIO must also be relieved.  Workers deserve clear and competent leadership.  It is the duty of all involved, including the PIO, to take occasional breaks so that they can maintain the high level efficiency that is required throughout an emergency.

The American Red Cross has identified the following guidelines for establishing staff working hours during an incident:

  • Hours worked per person per day:  Reasonably 12, but never more than 16
  • Days worked per person per week during a three-week deployment:  IF the emergency has had a severe impact on the community, the first seven to 10 days with no days off.

Refer to state and federal labor laws and collective bargaining agreements, which may also dictate legal and appropriate work hours.

Step 6.  Deliver an initial response to the media.
The CCT staff must not succumb to pressure to confirm or release information before confirmation by subject matter experts, the EOC, etc.  However, the release of some initial information may be necessary.  When releasing initial communication, state that the communication team is continuing to gather information.  One of the best ways to satisfy media (and, in some cases, public) frenzy is to take the lead and control the flow of information while establishing the CCT as the primary source of information.

The following responses to the media may buy valuable time that can be used to gather the facts:

  • “We’ve just learned about the situation and are trying to get more complete information now.”
  • “All of our efforts are directed at bringing the situation under control, so I’m not going to speculate about the cause of the incident.”
  • “I’m not the authority on this subject. Let me have [name of authority] call you right back.”
  • “We’re preparing a statement on that now.  May I fax it to you soon as it is ready for dissemination?”

Step 7. Deliver a follow-up media response.

  • Be first. Provide a statement that the EOC has been activated and is involved in the response.
  • Be right.  Begin monitoring the media to identify any misinformation that must be corrected.
  • Be credible.  Notify the media when and where updates will be available.  Credibility is often affected by how quickly the CCT appears to become involved in the response and recovery; the accuracy of the information that the CCT provides; and the level of openness, empathy, and determination that is expressed.
  • Do not speculate.  Release as much factual information as possible to the media and the public.

These elements must be included in the CCT’s first official statement or during the PIO’s first appearance with the media.  Mitigating the crisis may require a substantial amount of time.  If facts are not available, discuss the process that is in place to get needed information.  By sharing with the media the process that emergency management officials are implementing to develop an operation to resolve the crisis, the CCT can garner valuable time to put the communications operation into place.  Communicate early, do not to speculate, stick to the facts, and commit to disseminate more information as it becomes available.

Step 8.  Ensure that public communication channels are open.

  • Activate a toll-free, public information number as soon as possible.  Adjust hours of operation and the staffing of call managers as needed.
  • Present the initial media statement as the first message to the public.
  • Ensure that the initial public statement expresses empathy and acknowledges public concern regarding the uncertainty surrounding the incident.
  • Provide information that has been cleared, and refer the public to other information sites as appropriate.
  • Remind people that an emergency response process to resolve the crisis is in place.
  • Initiate a public call-monitoring process to identify rumors or controversial issues as soon as possible.