Confusion and intense media interest prevail during the immediate aftermath of a large-scale incident. Information is usually incomplete, and facts are disorganized. It is important to recognize that information from the media and/or other organizations, and information from within the CCT, might not be accurate. PIOs must determine the facts about the incident, learn about the jurisdiction’s response to the situation, and verify the true magnitude of the event as quickly as possible.
The triggering event and its immediate consequences will result in intense media attention, which will continue for an indefinite amount of time. Thus all crisis communications planning must concentrate on effectively managing the first 48 hours of the emergency. What is said or not said, and when and how a message is delivered, will profoundly affect the reputation of the entire jurisdiction.
- Acknowledge the event
- Express concern
- Be empathetic
- Establish organizational/spokesperson credibility
- Explain and inform the public about the facts of the incident.
- Advise the public about any risks.
- Release appropriate emergency actions the public can should take.
- Keep messages simple.
- Tell the public how, when, and where they will get additional information.
- Commit to continue communicating with stakeholders, target audiences, and the general public throughout the duration of the event.
The first hours of an incident response are often the most important. How facts are learned and shared shape the public opinion of the overall crisis response and can leave an indelible mark on the reputations of organizations and communities.
Simplicity, credibility, verifiability, consistency, and speed matter when communicating during the outset of an incident. The immediate aftermath of the triggering event is characterized by confusion and intense media interest. Because available information is usually incomplete and sometimes inaccurate media reports may be erratic.
The pressure to release information prematurely can be intense. But all information must be approved by the appropriate authorities before it is released to the media. Simplicity, credibility, verifiability, consistency, and speed matter when communicating during this phase of an actual incident.
During the initial phase of an incident or emergency, the public wants to know what they want to know NOW. People want timely and accurate facts regarding exactly what happened, the magnitude of the crisis, where the incident occurred, and what is being done in response to the event. They also want information about any lingering threat the event might have caused and how long that threat will remain. They want to know who is going to address and resolve the problems created by the incident. During this stage of acute danger, the priority for each individual is personal safety and survival.
To limit public anxiety during this phase, provide useful information about the nature of the problem and recommend positive action that the public can take. Immediately following the triggering event of an incident, seek to establish the public information communication team as THE credible source of information. Even though little information is available, a PIO can still communicate how the jurisdiction is responding to the event and when more information will be available. Messages should indicate that critical issues pertaining to the incident are being addressed reasonably, compassionately, and in a timely fashion. Communicators should be prepared to answer questions about these issues as quickly, accurately, and fully as possible.
Due to the amount of stress that the triggering event phase of an incident inflicts upon the public, some individuals may not be able to respond appropriately to information or instructions. The following factors contribute to public stress levels:
- Threat to life and encounter with death
- Feelings of powerlessness
- Loss of loved one, home, livelihood, or possessions
- Dislocation (e.g., separated from loved one or home)
- Feelings of responsibility (e.g., should be doing more)
- Inescapable horror (e.g., trapped, unseen threat)
- Human malevolence (e.g., deliberate desire to cause harm)
Therefore, adhering to the following crisis communication principles is of paramount importance:
- Do not over-reassure. The objective is not to placate, but to elicit accurate, calm concern
- Acknowledge uncertainty, and offer only what is known. Show empathy: “It must be extremely difficult to hear that we can’t answer that question right now…”
- Emphasize that a process to learn more is in place: “We have a system (plan, process) to help us respond (find answers, etc.)”
- Do not attempt to allay panic. Provide a consistent message that reflects the aspects of a changing situation. Alert the public that the message, recommendation, etc. may change as additional information becomes available. Ensure that all responsible participants and any third-party validators are immediately notified if the message changes.
Presenting an inappropriate tone at this stage of an incident will damage credibility.