It will never happen to us. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard those words over the past 35 years. Yet it happened to governments in financial crises, corruption charges, obscene selfies, protests gone awry and the list goes on…and on…and on.

Putting your head in the sand is not uncommon in government in America. Many offices don’t have a crisis plan, or if they do, they don’t update it or rehearse it. It sits there like an abandoned book collecting dust until the fingers of crisis slam the office staff. By then, the dust has obliterated any meaningful directions, and the “crisis team,” if one actually exists, scurries around trying to put lipstick on a pig. That's why a crisis plan needs to be kept current.  

Classic inappropriate responses include saying “no comment,” stonewalling and running away from a reporter’s camera.  “60 Minutes” is the leader at catching guilty parties ducking media by jumping into cars or elevators. Local governments also can be anti-social in a crisis. Being unaware of what people are saying in social media is risky business. Those who run the offices tend to be older, and social media is not often on their radar.

So what’s the fix? What can you do to prepare for a public relations crisis? In the short term, I suggest a little test we call our “Vulnerability Survey.” It might move the needle a notch, perhaps even enough to make changes that can save your reputation. Score less than eight, and you flunk.

1.    Do you have a crisis team in place with people who can think on their feet and have related experience?
2.    Do you have friends in your court if you need them?  This would include media representatives/regulators/inspectors/police/crisis experts, etc.
3.    Do you honestly monitor possible problems that could lead to a crisis, such as employee relationships, safety issues, confidentiality or termination issues?

4.    Do you have up-to-date written policies for implementation in a crisis?

5.    Do you have a list of emergency numbers/cell phones to reach stakeholders and employees at a second’s notice?

6.    Who is your spokesperson and how well trained are they if the bad thing happens?

7.    How do you handle belligerent staffers, volatile terminated employees, and sexual harassment accusations?

8.    What’s your social media policy in a crisis? Do you have someone who understands your strategy besides that college student you hired to do Facebook and twitter posts?

9.    Are you familiar with emergency response teams in your area?

10.    When was the last time that you had an emergency evacuation drill?

Recently, I joined a small cadre of crisis management experts to launch, a service designed to help prevent the kind of embarrassing, reputation-damaging and financially harmful crises that are featured in the news every day. Jonathan and Erik Bernstein (crisis specialists), Mark Weaver (an attorney and crisis expert) and I were moved to provide the service because of the hundreds of bad decisions made daily that negatively impact reputation and the bottom line.

I’m pretty sure all the government offices currently embroiled in crises probably said, “It will never happen to us.” It’s not if, it’s when.

Susan Tellem, APR, is a partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, Inc. where she leads the crisis team. She headed the crisis team for the DA in the Michael Jackson molestation case for a year and a half and speaks on the subject nationally.  Follow her on Twitter @susantellem.