8 communications guidelines for a crisis

The explosions at the Boston Marathon on Monday remind people who handle communications to keep the following things in mind.

When television media were busy showing aftermath video of the Boston Marathon explosions today, people on the scene at the time of the blasts were sharing their images and video on Twitter, once again highlighting the power of social media over traditional media.

Moments after the blasts, tweets began flying and while television news was trying to make heads or tails of what happened showing scenes of the mop up effort, Twitter accounts were streaming photos and eyewitness accounts. Even in the office where I work in Colorado, CNN was on in the background, but everyone was on Twitter getting the latest updates.

The Boston Globe took down its traditional front page and was simply running a live blog of updates, including its Twitter feed. While the steady stream of news was spellbinding, it did come with a bit of news judgment, knowing that everything was coming through without a filter.

Of course, with the instant news fix, there are pitfalls and wild speculations. Particularly disheartening were the reports of fake Twitter accounts being created to solicit donations, as reported by ESPN’s Darren Rovell:

As news and eyewitness accounts get spread over social media, the media and those handling the media have a huge role of getting the right news out in the next hours, days and weeks. Most people will initially follow Twitter for breaking news, but will look to the media for the real story provided by officials.

Though each breaking news event, whether a shooting at a school or a series of explosions, PR people handling communication should at least keep in mind the following guidelines:

1. Your first responsibility is to the victims and their families. In this case, that includes those living and working in Boston particularly as more devices are found across the city.

2. Acknowledge social media as an instantaneous source of news, some of it not-so-reliable.

3. Be professional with the media and the community, but don’t be afraid to show emotion.

4. Remember that the news cycle will move on eventually, but the mourning by victims’ families and the community will last for years, even after the media stops calling

5. Work with law enforcement. All parties should provide consistent and complementary information at regular intervals. Think of the pyramid approach to communications, with one voice coming from the top.

6. Tighten up leaks. This will keep media from playing sources off one another.

7. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. Giving the media a snippet of news now is not worth jeopardizing an investigation. Plus nothing is worse than providing wrong information.

8. Provide a briefing schedule, and stick to it. Consistency helps build confidence.

Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at grudawsky@groundfloormedia.com.

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