How to adapt FEMA’s 8-Step Crisis Model for your organization

When to use it and why.

FEMA Information Sign for Hurricane Victims

Public affairs professionals often deal with high-stakes comms. Public information officers are often responsible for sharing heavy information related to school shootings, devastating public health news and natural disasters. While other industries may not reckon with life-or-death stakes, there are crises in any industry – and a lot you can learn from public affairs.

Planning appropriately can make all the difference in how well the comms is received.

One crisis template worth considering is FEMA’s 8-Step Model, which many in public affairs already use. The 8-Step Model is based on a social marketing technique that encourages actions “for the benefit of individuals, groups, or society as a whole,” according to FEMA.

FEMA’s 8-Step Model includes:

  1. Assess current situation – Understand the problem, the audience and what you want them to do.
  2. Set communication goals – What do you want done and how will you get there? Create goals and timelines for how to execute that.
  3. Identify intended audiences – Who is your target audience and what matters to them? Use that information to develop messaging from audience priorities.
  4. Develop and test messages – Ensure messaging is understandable and communicates the audience benefit.
  5. Select channels and activate – Learn the best way to connect with your audience and partner with relevant stakeholders.
  6. Develop an action plan – Choose the comms strategy to use, ID possible risks and develop a contingency plan.
  7. Develop and pretest materials – Test out what resources are valuable to the target audience.
  8. Implement, evaluate and modify plan – Look at your action plan and adjust. Ensure proper plan approvals are in place and activate.

Scott Thomsen, director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Ventura County Fire Department in southern California, often uses the 8-Step Model and encourages his industry peers to adopt it too. The longtime public affairs official, who teaches  PIO courses for FEMA, spoke to Ragan about its usefulness for all industries.

“The same model applies because it starts with us assessing your situation … setting goals for what you want to accomplish, building a plan for getting yourself there and determining what your audiences are,” Thomsen said.


When to use it

Using crisis models like FEMA’s to develop a plan doesn’t have to be an arduous process – use pieces, or all of it, whatever complements your orgs comms plans.

“If you’re starting out, the great part about the eight-step process is that it literally walks you through the steps of what to do and (is) the first piece in any campaign or project that you are going to undertake as a communicator,” Thomsen said.

The key is to think about your comms needs ahead of time to put together a strong plan. From there, continue to check the plan and revise it as needed.

“You can start doing the work and you constantly need to be evaluating whether it is getting seen and heard,” Thomsen said. “Is it sticking? Are people remembering your message and are they following that message to the desired ends?”


Adapting the plan for your comms needs

Thomsen, a former public utility spokesman at Seattle City Light, used the model when the city had a snowstorm.

Citywide messaging asked residents to not drive or park on the streets so snowplows and emergency response vehicles could have easier access.

The request did not go over well.

“Telling someone to not to do something runs very counter to American psychology,” Thomsen said. “We are very big on freedom and personal choice. So, we saw a lot of that messaging fail and people would still be out trying to drive.”

To fix that issue, Thomsen and his team adjusted the messaging to read: “Please make good decisions about whether you need to drive or not. Because keeping the streets clear for emergency vehicles that are going to help your friends and neighbors is really important right now.”

The new messaging caused a “dramatic change” and significantly reduced the number of people on the roads, Thomsen said.

“We put it out in a way that was giving them a greater sense of control,” Thomsen said. “We were respecting their choices to make and asking them to please make good decisions.”

Thomsen added that the model or parts of it can be used on campaigns and non-crisis comms because using it often continues to build up one’s “muscle memory.”

“So, when you’re in a crisis scenario, you can run through this very quickly when you don’t have much time to make it happen,” Thomsen said.

Learn more about FEMA’s 8-Step Crisis Model by joining us at Ragan’s Public Affairs & Speechwriting Virtual Conference on Feb. 21.

Sherri Kolade is a writer and conference producer at Ragan Communications. She enjoys watching old films, reading and building an authentically curated life. Follow her on LinkedIn. Message her at if you have a great PR/comms speaker in mind for a Ragan event.


Topics: PR


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