By Don Reeder
In December 2021, the City of Mayfield, Kentucky, was hit by a tornado — a severe weather event that rarely occurs in the winter. Residents were devastated by the mass destruction of homes and businesses, and the loss of lives.
Mayor Kathy Stewart O’Nan was unexpectedly thrust into the local, regional, and national limelight as she assumed the prominent roles of consoler- in-chief and the face of the disaster for thousands.
More and more, city officials in Minnesota are becoming aware that an unexpected event like this could happen in their own communities at any time. City officials want to be better prepared for the attention that comes along with that. When a crisis happens in your community, it typically calls for an “all-hands-on-deck” situation at city hall.
Components of crisis preparation
City officials frequently contact the League of Minnesota Cities when they need crisis communications advice. Requests for this kind of assistance have increased significantly in recent years. In the League’s work with cities during times of crisis, we have seen some recurring patterns for successful crisis preparation and communication.
When your city is in the middle of a crisis, it’s true that successful crisis communication involves effective message development and media relations, among other factors. Well before a crisis occurs, though, there is an opportunity for elected and appointed officials to get a head start on the unexpected.
Cities that successfully achieve their crisis communications objectives usually share one or more of the following characteristics of crisis preparation:
- They know what a crisis looks like and are able to recognize one when it’s happening.
- Their staff forms a planning and implementation team that works in unison to develop a communications response.
- The team recognizes the unique roles played by elected and appointed officials as potential strategists and spokespersons.
- The team’s efforts are directed by a crisis communications response plan that has been developed well before a crisis occurs.
Defining a crisis
Conventional wisdom often defines a crisis as a disaster or tragedy impacting the safety and well-being of your community. We tend to think of a crisis as an incident of high visibility and impact — destructive natural disasters (like Mayfield), acts of violence that might result in several deaths or injuries, or a mass transit accident with multiple casualties. Those are certainly circumstances when city government is expected to communicate a response.
A crisis, though, could also be “self-inflicted,” occurring because of the alleged actions of someone who is employed by your city or connected to your city in some other way. Such circumstances might lead to a public relations crisis. Some examples of this include accusations of employee harassment, alleged excessive use of force by a police officer, inappropriate use of social media by city staff, or even alleged violations of the Open Meeting Law.
In defining a crisis of any magnitude in your community, consider whether one or more of the following is true:
- There is a clear impact on the safety, health, or well-being of residents.
- There is an impact on service delivery.
- Questions are raised about city competence.
- There is a possibility of legal liability.
- There might be damage to the city’s credibility and image.
Elected city officials are accountable for recognizing and addressing all unexpected scenarios. A successful crisis communications strategy is a critical part of the equation.
A team approach
To prepare a successful crisis communications strategy in your city, start with a preemptive strike by forming a collaborative crisis communications team well before a crisis of any kind occurs.
If possible, your team should include your city’s chief appointed official (administrator, manager, or clerk), the mayor and/or a council member, the police chief (and/or fire chief), your city attorney, and the person in charge of communications or public relations.
Perhaps your city doesn’t have all these specific individuals on staff — or perhaps they have different titles. If that’s the case, create a team that reflects the makeup of your staff. This group should serve as your core team for crisis communications strategic direction and planning.
Team members should recognize and respect their own unique roles and that of others on the team. That means they should acknowledge potential tensions and competing interests among members.
Be mindful that residents of your community might have communication expectations for the mayor and council members that differ from those they have for city staff. That’s because the accountabilities of elected and appointed officials are somewhat dissimilar. Thus, it’s not unusual for elected officials and appointed officials to have different communication objectives that need to be reconciled among the team.
Create a crisis communications plan
The first charge of this team is to develop a crisis communications plan. The plan doesn’t need to be dense or extensive, like a city comprehensive plan or a five-year strategic plan. It can be very concise and accessible.
A crisis communications plan can take the form of a checklist of tasks, a flowchart of assignments, or a one-page list of bullet points. The most important thing about the plan is that it suits the unique needs of your city.
Whatever format you choose, your plan should include a “communications tree” — a list of go-to individuals in the event of a crisis — so that all key city staff are working from the same playbook.
Your crisis communications plan should also include an audit of your city’s available communications tools and a directory of priority media contacts.
Communications tools are those used to communicate with residents and other relevant audiences. Those tools might include your city’s website, emergency email notification system, and social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram).
Residents expect consistency when hearing from the city, so your plan should identify which tools are regularly used for any situation requiring messaging by the city. You’ll want to deploy them as priority tools for your crisis communications messaging as well. The city’s most consistently deployed communications tools are the ones residents will likely look to first in a crisis.
Your city might also want to issue a public statement or a press release for local reporters, as appropriate. So, a directory of media contacts that can be referenced quickly should also be included in or appended to your team’s written plan. Include local newspapers, television stations, and radio stations capable of quickly reaching your residents.
Once your plan is complete, make a habit of practicing it using a table-top scenario, so your team is thoroughly familiar with all steps when a real crisis occurs. Read through your plan every six months or so and update it as needed.
Expectations for spokespersons
Generally, an appointed city official — a role typically assumed by the administrator/manager or police chief, as appropriate — should serve as the spokesperson who communicates the situational and operational aspects of a crisis response. Those aspects include:
- A brief description of the incident.
- Any threats or safety concerns to residents.
- Any disruptions or interruptions to core services.
- Relevant facts known about the incident (be aware of privacy and data practices limitations).
- An explanation of what action (if any) the public should take.
Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, the mayor or a designated council member shares a unique and important role as a spokesperson. A demonstration of leadership is necessary to show that the city is in control and functioning, even in the worst circumstances.
Residents might need a leader to project strength to boost up a demoralized city. Though some situational or operational talking points might be appropriate, projecting hope and confidence is an essential duty for elected officials.
When it comes to selecting an elected official as a spokesperson, many times the role is assigned to the city’s mayor. But a designated city council member, perhaps even a crisis communications team member, should be poised to step in under certain circumstances.
Some examples when this might be the case include if the council member was specifically assigned by the crisis communications team, if the mayor is not available, if a specific district/ward is particularly affected, or if the mayor is the subject of the controversy or crisis.
Ready for action
An organized team effort, along with a team-developed plan in anticipation of a crisis, sets the tone for a city’s effective communications response when a crisis occurs. Recognizing when to activate the plan is a critical step in staying ahead of messaging needs and demonstrating that your city is in control.
While no one can predict the future, with a mindset of an all-hands-on-deck team approach to crisis communications planning, your city can take an important stride in preparing for the unexpected.
Don Reeder is public affairs coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 215-4031.