Independent Thinking Blog

The Essential Guide to Crisis Communications

I remember when the first case of Ebola hit the United States. And then, again, when the first health care workers from the hot zone came home. There was misinformation spread by clinicians, the media, and elected officials and, frankly, a lot of misguided panic from everyday people. It took a herculean effort to calm the public and restore sanity (and fact) to the conversation.

Doug Levy, at the time chief communications officer at Columbia University Medical Center, was in the middle of that effort. Now he’s written a book to guide communications professionals on how to handle crisis communications.

The Communications Golden Hour is designed to help communicators in the public sector understand how to prepare and respond to life-threatening emergencies. It walks through several recent crises (Northern California Wildfires, Las Vegas mass shooting, the Hawaii false missile alert) and examines what went right — and what went wrong.

The book’s title comes from the health care sector, where what happens within the first 60-minutes after a traumatic injury often means the difference between life and death. Levy writes:

Just as with emergency medical care, communications decisions made before the first emergency alert goes out and within the initial response frequently determine how the public will perceive everything that folllows.

The book addresses:

  • establishing trust
  • 3 key questions for crisis planning
  • crafting an effective plan
  • tailoring your messages
  • choosing the right messengers
  • selecting the appropriate channels
  • addressing mistakes

The book also looks at 10 lessons learned from evaluating past incidents and contains tools and worksheets to help agencies and other organizations develop their own comprehensive crisis communications plans.

The 1 big thing I learned.

The one big thing I learned is to be consciously aware of your audience’s biases when planning for an emergency.

Levy packs a lot of information into The Communications Golden Hour. And his book is one I will use as a guide the next time a client approaches me about communications planning. But to give you a sense of why I like this book so much I wanted to share my biggest takeaway. It’s about how to answer the question: what does your audience believe about the situation?

Emergency communicators cannot simply say “don’t worry” or “you are wrong.” If a person believes they can get Ebola from casual contact or simply living in the same city as someone who is sick, there is nothing irrational about wanting to get away from what that person believes is a risk… The point is, do not challenge the beliefs of your target audience. That gives people reason to reject your instructions at the very time that you need to be considered a trusted source of safety information.

In other words, if people believe something erroneous to be true, a crisis is not the time to correct their misperceptions. Doing so is more likely to make people tune you out when you most need them to listen and take action. Instead, understand their conscious (and unconscious) biases and craft your messages accordingly.

Every organization needs a crisis communications plan.

Time Counts in Crisis Communications

The book is written for public sector agencies, but it’s really a book for all of us. Whether it’s an active shooter on campus (as happened at YouTube earlier this month) or chemical stores spewing into the community (as occurred following the2017 flooding in Houston), you have to be prepared for the worst. Preparing in advance for what to say, how to say it, who will say it, and where you’ll say it can make all the difference. The Communications Golden Hour is a beautifully written, smart, practical, and succinct guide to help you do just that.

*Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book in exchange for agreeing to review it — but without any restrictions on what I might say. And I only review books I think are worth reading, not because they’re free swag.

Keeping Time by Agê Barros (Unsplash).

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