Managing a National Crisis Communications Response and the Aftermath

News Sarah Macdonald

This month we interviewed Sarah Macdonald, communications officer for the City of San Marcos and vice president of awards for CAPIO. Read about her first crisis communications experience, best practices she learned and her 10-minute hacks on getting PIOs well-prepared for any crisis situation.

CAPIO: What has been your biggest crisis communications experience?

SM: My first time managing a full scale crisis communications response happened in May of 2014 with the Cocos Fire in San Diego County. It was the largest fire San Marcos had seen in seven years and a full scale EOC activation occurred. I was only two weeks on the job as the interim communications officer for the City of San Marcos when the fire started. A month prior, I had attended Scott Summerfield’s crisis communications training and was still relatively new to the PIO world. Needless to say, I went into the experience with my eyes wide open.

In the moment I had to rely on my training and had to immediately assess the situation, build a communications plan, identify the tools at my disposal and get out preliminary information quickly. I had to develop a public information team on the fly, because the contact list I inherited was outdated or the staff on the list had been reassigned to other EOC duties.

Our City website was the primary tool I used to get information out, and all of the information we published linked back to the website. I created an incident page so community members could read about the timeline of the fire and updated the page every hour with a timestamp even if there was not any big news to report.

We had an active social media effort and utilized Facebook and Twitter regularly every hour. We used the specific hashtag #CocosFire, which became nationally recognized. The crisis situation had ebbs and flows to it in regards to information reporting, so in the slower times we used our social media platforms to connect with residents who were scared and looking for reassurance. We took photos from inside the EOC and posted photos of City staff working around the clock to reassure our community members we cared and were doing everything we could to ensure their safety. Using social media was an opportunity to build even more trust with our community members.

The media inquiries and response were overwhelming, especially as the incident went national. The media calls were coming in more quickly than could be handled, so I had to gather staff from other departments who could help me write responses while I coordinated subject matter experts or elected official interviews. I also brought in colleagues from other agencies in the county to help who had active duties in the incident but were not as busy and who could also help with media calls.

I had Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer calling me when the incident arose to the national media level. It’s easy to put them on the priority list of media responses because of their national prominence. I had to be mindful of prioritizing our local media who received information first, because ultimately they are the direct link to our community members who needed the important safety information and updates. We had to ensure we were being conscious of the relationship we had built with our local media, because those are the reporters you will still work with even after the crisis is over.

CAPIO: The three year anniversary of the Cocos Fire just passed in May. Since then, what have you learned about crisis communications?

SM: Training matters. As communicators, we have to be well trained when a crisis hits. When the fire occurred I had some templates and a general emergency manual, but since then I have developed a public information officer standard operating procedure so we don’t have to invent from scratch.

Social media really matters in a crisis situation. The public expects a 24/7 response from agencies during a crisis. We learned that disaster information is the most retweeted information and people will rally together online in a crisis, so we have to be there in that space with them. But it was two-way communication. We learned some things on social media that our operations team hadn’t figured out yet. Community members brought up two really important questions like horse evacuation and getting prescriptions that we hadn’t addressed. By listening to them we were better able to provide those critical services to our residents and animals during the crisis.

Relationships matter on multiple fronts; not only with media, but with other utility providers and sister agencies who can often lend support. Creating a unified message with larger agencies is integral to the communications response. And of course – the relationships with our PIO community matter. I used my CAPIO network as an army of support when I had questions or was feeling overwhelmed. I called in a couple of PIOs I knew were media trained to help me out.

Good communications builds trust with your public. You can have the best tactical operations team, but if your communication isn’t accurate and empathetic you will get a figurative “black eye” to your reputation. Good communications during a crisis can take you leaps and bounds with your community.

I also learned that a crisis isn’t over when the EOC packs up and goes home. Afterwards, I had to manage the swell of emotions from the community who wanted to give thanks to the first responders with a community event. We also had to deal with the aftermath of the fires, like potential mud slides from the predicted El Nino rains and getting mudslide safety information out.

Overall, I learned a lot about myself throughout the crisis. Managing the crisis gave me a confidence boost and it also provided a bonding experience with my leadership team.

CAPIO: What’s some advice you can give to your fellow PIOs on handling crises?

SM: Training is so important. I can’t emphasize that enough. Within that training creating a detailed communication strategy with templates and pre-scripted messages so you can have something ready to work with when a crisis occurs.

It’s also valuable to establish a team of at least three staff that have some training of the EOC process. The staff you choose don’t have be in your communications division, but it should be staff you can meet with quarterly to do a quick overview of the crisis response so it stays fresh and to update your handbook.

One of the biggest things I learned during the Cocos Fire is that there is an aftermath we have to be aware of with crises. Establishing an “after crisis plan” and being aware of potential scenarios after a crisis can help transition you out of the event.  

Make sure you’re connected with your various communities, both internally with leadership teams, but also externally with the PIO community and other organizations.

CAPIO: Oftentimes it’s hard to find the time for PIOs to prepare crisis materials in advance. What’s a crisis communications “hack” you can give us that only takes 10 minutes?

SM: Asking yourself if other people besides you know how to access the crisis communications plan. Put together a spreadsheet that has a list of tools or files and passwords and where to find them.  

  • Test out your “all call alert” to staff or another aspect of your crisis communications procedure.
  • Write one template in 10 minutes.
  • Build a relationship in 10 minutes.
  • Touch bases with an important person in your network that you may need to call upon in a crisis with a quick phone call.  

CAPIO: Any other final thoughts?

SM: The Cocos Fire was my first time dealing with a full-scale crisis communications response with an active EOC, but remember as PIOs we deal with small-scale crises all the time. We can still use the same training and relationship building to handle things like reporter inquiries, guiding stories and social media monitoring.

It’s important to have a strong everyday content creation strategy on social media and engage with your community members. Doing so will drive those community members to your social media platforms during a crisis because they already feel like they know your agency and trust you.

Interview and article by Kaylee Weatherly, public information officer, Long Beach Water and communications chair for CAPIO

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