In Philadelphia earlier this month, a chemical spill threatened the city's water supply. The experience offered important lessons in crisis communications and crisis management.
I applied my experience as Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's Communications Director to offer some thoughts on how crisis management and response unfolds in large organizations and how organizations can strengthen their crisis communications through planning and training.
When I led crisis communications efforts for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we faced numerous crisis situations from train derailments to snow storms. I found that there were some important rules and actions and organization should take during its crisis management.
It’s easy to observe a situation and play Monday-morning quarterback. We all do it, whether watching a football game or evaluating an organization’s response to a public crisis. When I led communications efforts for former Gov. Tom Wolf, my least favorite genre of story was “Experts grade and critique response/plan/administrative action.”
For everything the public sees, there are 15 terrible decisions or worse alternatives that an organization, especially a government leader, has to navigate. Often there are only bad options, and you must do your best to mitigate the damage and communicate to the public. I say this not to let our elected leaders off the hook but to provide context for their actions during crises.
Planning, training, and careful execution can make a crisis response easier for practitioners and more useful for the public. With the number of variables during any single event, it can be difficult to evaluate any organization’s response. Still, it’s important to understand some best practices of crisis and emergency management. Most importantly, government entities and organizations must have a planning, training, and review regimen in place so that when a crisis hits, they are best prepared to serve the public.