My colleague, Johnathan Bernstein, recently ended a blog on the Chilean mine rescue with this comment:
Truly successful crisis management does more than simply resolve the issues at hand. By making public the steps being taken to rectify and resolve issues, little room is left for damaging rumor and innuendo to creep in and stakeholders far are more likely to lend a sympathetic ear.
This is probably the most succinct statement of the role of crisis management that I have ever read.
As emergency managers, we tend to sometimes treat information as something that must be protected and doled out piecemeal. Part of this is because for years we've been trained that media is the enemy and forget that they can, in fact, be allies in our quest to get vital information to the public. Many times it's not enough to just do your job - you have to let the public know you are doing it and why you're doing it the way you are. Johnathan's statement reminds us that how well we handle the crisis today can save us considerable agony in the future.
For those readers who have been following the events following the explosion of a gas line in San Bruno, California, last month, it's now possible to access the dispatch communications from that terrible night. Dan Noyes, an investigative reporter for KGO 7, our local ABC affilliate, did an excellent report that captures the confusion and chaos initially faced by responders and how things were brought under control. In connection with this story, he has also posted an MP3 file of the dispatch communications.
The communications record offers a couple of teaching points for those of us who must manage crisis. First, we understand that the first few hours of any crisis is chaotic as we seek to gain information about the event. Sometimes our information is wrong, as were the initial reports in San Bruno that an airplane had crashed. We have to make the best decisions we can with the best available information. We understand this. However, the public does not always understand it. With access to our internal communications a matter of public record, we must be prepared to answer the inevitable questions that will arise after the crisis is over.
Secondly, we sometimes forget that everything we say is being recorded and is subject to review. Inside jokes, gallows humor, or fits of temper are part of how we communicate but taken out of context, they can make us seem callous or incompetent. In this day and age, we need to remember that everything we say on our "internal" communications will be accessible to anyone who wants to review it.
So the next time you key your mike, remember that it's not only operational communication, it's also crisis communication.