Viewpoints

Tips for communicating during a crisis

By Jennifer Kaplan

When is the best time to prepare for an emergency? Before it happens, right? Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis to get focused, let alone understand exactly how to effectively prepare for one. 

A great example is Moore, Okla., which was hit by a devastating EF5 tornado on May 20, 2013.  That tornado took lives and caused mass destruction in the heart of Oklahoma. In the wake of this unprecedented tragedy, there was a huge influx of information that needed to be communicated to the citizens of Oklahoma, including recovery options and progress, organizing clean-up efforts and more. State and local government had to act fast.

As part of the relief effort, Oklahoma launched OK Strong, the official website of response and resources for those affected by the tornadoes. In addition to creating and launching a website that served as a crucial centralized hub of resources for tornado victims, the state also understood the need to build an audience they could communicate with through a variety of channels.  Government officials implemented industry best practices and took aggressive steps to launch email and wireless updates to keep their community informed and safe.

On May 31, a second wave of powerful storms hit Oklahoma, but this time, an established communications platform was in place. The site was ready, and with a built-in base of subscribers, the state was able to distribute information to citizens before, during, and after the storms.

While Oklahoma’s path to implementing this platform stemmed from tragedy, government agencies don’t have to wait for the worst to prepare for it.  Most importantly, government organizations should lay the foundation for critical outreach by establishing connections with its citizens and stakeholders in advance of an emergency situation.

Reaching as many people as possible is a critical component of achieving the desired mission results of this type of communication program. In the case of OK Strong, the team employed best practices to quickly get people subscribed to their updates. Beyond adding a prominent email sign-up box to their website, they also promoted their sign-up options to their audiences on social media. These promotional efforts helped convert casual browsers into direct subscribers.

One of the most impactful strategies they used to grow their list came from their participation a cross-promotional program with other government organizations. Many other Oklahoma state agencies, such as the Department of Health and Department of Education, are able to promote OK Strong through their own digital communications by leveraging this automated platform. The City of Moore itself also promotes OK Strong’s sign-up options as well. Through these cross-promotional partnerships, relevant agencies and cities have contributed over 80 percent of the new people signing up for OK Strong’s informational updates.

Once those direct connections are established, government agencies should utilize all communication channels at their disposal, offering the public options to sign up for updates from the organization via email, text messaging, voice, blogs, social media and websites. These tools help rapidly distribute important information to a broad audience during an emergency and also effectively rally support for help and cooperation in the aftermath of an emergency.

OK Strong offers a digest of the tweets from their organization as a daily email. This allows anyone who doesn’t have Twitter, or who doesn’t check Twitter often, to see the content OK Strong distributes through social media in their email inboxes. All emails have also been optimized for mobile viewing, including the addition of a thinner banner in the header of the emails with a clean and simple template.

Automating key communications processes helped OK Strong to leverage the content already posted on its website for repackaging as digital communications.  Functionality on the RSS feeds generated by OK Strong’s website, was used to automatically deploy email and wireless updates to subscribers when new information is available.  With this automated process, OK Strong is able to send many of the typical communications needed before, during, and after a critical situation – without adding extra staffing resources. Some examples of the content that OK Strong distributes include weather information and warnings, rumor control, volunteer requests and information, guidance on registering for federal assistance, and animal and livestock location.

In urgent and emergency situations like the Oklahoma Tornadoes or the Boston Marathon attack, reaching citizens and residents with information can be a matter of life and death. Here are some tips that any government agency can implement quickly to keep citizens safe and informed during a crisis – whether it’s severe weather, a bombing, a freeway pile up or any other emergency.

Leverage your digital properties. Social media is a great way to get the word out about an emergency situation.  There’s no denying the ripple effect of social media in reaching an amazing amount of people. But people have become increasingly aware of the rumor mill on Twitter and Facebook. People still want to hear directly from you, and they’ll visit your website to find out more. Your website can hold as much information as needed. Be sure to update your organization’s websites and blogs, with prominent news placement on the home page, as soon as you can when an emergency hits.

Use every communication channel you can. Your organization’s website or blog should be the main hub for information on the emergency. You can post detailed information to these digital properties, from updates on the current situation to links to other organizations that are providing help, such as the American Red Cross, to contact information for key people – either to report a tip or to try and find a loved one. But this doesn’t mean that you should ignore your other channels. During an emergency, the broader your reach, the better. Be sure to use email updates, text messages/SMS alerts, voice messages, and social media postings along with more traditional methods, such as news releases, press conferences, or media interviews, to push your messages out to the public in as many ways as possible.

Communicate whenever you have an update. This seems like common sense but the truth is that, in emergency situations, the public craves information, and you want to make sure that they are receiving official information. During Hurricane Sandy, false tweets pervaded Twitter, adding to the fear of an already chaotic situation. By communicating often, with updates to your organization’s website and alerts going out via email, SMS, and social media, your organization can help provide the news that’s needed to keep the public informed and safe.

Beyond handling the immediate logistics of getting people to safety and securing an area during an emergency, consistent communications in the aftermath of an emergency can also provide a stabilizing force.

For more information on OK Strong, visit their website and sign up for updates

Jennifer Kaplan is the product marketing manager for GovDelivery.

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