The Basics of Emergency Communications

The Basics of Emergency Communications

July 19, 2017


Hello everyone – welcome to today’s Digitize Your Firm webinar! We’re exploring the topic of emergency communications, from the very basics to dealing with a social media blunders, and preparing your organization. If this isn’t the first time you’ve learned about emergency or crisis communications, feel free to provide insight. If you have something to add, simply click the green speech bubble at the top of the screen to open the chat and either write your comment or ask to speak.

As with all Digitize Your Firm webinars, this will be recorded for later playback if you wanted extra time with a certain section or for listening on the go. We encourage you to review our past webinars which can be accessed from the webinar schedule on the Digitize Your Firm page.

Now, let’s dig in!


For today’s webinar, we’re going to discuss emergency communications by first discussing what it is and general tips, then onto what to do during a social media blunder, and finally – tips and information you can use to build your emergency communications plan.

Emergency Communications 101

Emergencies happen – sometimes because of a sudden issue or crisis arising from natural causes, sometimes as a symptom of a larger organizational problem. As some of you may know, there are many layers and different types of emergencies – some deal with sensitive data, such a major hack or leak, a political crisis, or others with forces of nature descending upon populated areas, and loss of life is possible.

While you often can’t control how an emergency situation arises, you always have the choice of how to respond. That is where emergency communications comes in. For those who may not be familiar with the term, emergency communications – or crisis communications as some may know it – is an area of emergency management, public relations, and business continuity that deals in how organizations, companies, governments, and such communicate with their stakeholders during an emergency.

What defines an emergency? Well, that can be a broad answer depending on who you speak to and what a company’s interests are. For the vast majority of organizations, it could be a natural disaster disrupting their business, loss of life, an environmental disaster, a security breach, product failure, and can go all the way to image issues – such as an insensitive or tone-deaf marketing campaign that causes boycotting.

For today’s webinar, we’ll be doing a high-level overview of many of these different types here are some key components to keep top of mind.

1. Try to Anticipate Emergencies & Crises

While no one has the foresight for every eventually, try to create plans and anticipate emergencies before they arise. What if sensitive data is taken? What if there is a fire at a critical facility? Ask yourself what is the worst that could go wrong and start from there.

2. Lead with the Facts

When crises do arise, remember to present the facts while still be empathetic to those that may be affected. You need to be the key point that anyone, including the media, goes to for the latest information – if you aren’t, they could go somewhere else.

3. Be Clear & Concise

Regardless of how complicated the issue at hand may be, ensure that you can communicate it in a clear way that anyone could understand. If you fear it could be too difficult, having visuals can come in handy such as maps or diagrams.

4. Be Ready to Communicate

In today’s world, there are countless ways to gather information from newspapers to TV and social media. When an emergency arises, be prepared to communicate across all of these channels as needed – be ready to explain issues in 140 characters or less, and to provide accessible, updated information for those who need it.

5. Be Transparent

Let’s be honest – if you lie or try to cover the truth, someone is going to find out, which will only make the situation worse. Be transparent and provide as much information as you can, avoid ‘no comment’ as it can imply guilt, and if you don’t know the answer to something, don’t improvise.

6. Follow the Plan

All organizations should have a crisis or emergency communications plan – keep that plan close and follow it, as it will help you navigate the issues you encounter, provide the tools you need (such as templates), and identified spokespersons.

It’s important to note that emergency and crisis communication plans are not crafted to sweep issues or incidents under the rug nor can they make them simply go away. They are made to ensure your organization or business has the tools they need to meet the channels the crisis will bring and add resilience as you face new and unforeseen problems.

Dealing With a Social Media Blunder

Uh oh… you just made a huge mistake on social media. You may have panicked and deleted the message, but it has already been commented on and spread around. You can’t sweep it under the rug. So, what do you do now? Begin damage control and ensure that the same mistake is not repeated in the future. If you have ever made a mistake with your social media marketing strategy, rest assured that you’re not alone! We’ve included a few famous social media faux pas to show what can go wrong and how it can be fixed.

1. One of your employees just sent out a terrible unauthorized tweet.

And now you have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Of course, apologize and delete the tweet. Let your followers know it was not an approved tweet and it was not up to your company’s standards. But there’s another secret marketing weapon you can sometimes use in this situation: humor. While it’s not always a good strategy, humor is a great tool if you know when and how to use it wisely.

This situation doesn’t always have to be a huge marketing nightmare. If it’s just one foolish out of character tweet, your followers will probably understand that it was a rogue staff member. Depending on the severity of the tweet, using humor is sometimes an appropriate and effective way to handle the situation. When an American Red Cross employee accidentally tweeted from the organization’s official Twitter account about drinking and “#gettingslizzerd” the Red Cross handled it admirably. After deleting the tweet, the Red Cross tweeted that it was “sober and [had] confiscated the keys.”

By the way, it goes without saying that you should put someone trusted and professional in charge of your social media account. Don’t simply select a random employee who has just started at the company, because you never know what could end up on your social media feed.

2. Your tweet was really poorly timed.

Normally the tweet in question may not have caused any alarm, but timing is everything. Always stay up to date with what’s happening in the news and be sure that your social media marketing strategy is appropriate. If you just had a highly publicized customer service nightmare, if your product is in the midst of a recall or if you are having other well-known problems with your service, it’s probably not a great time to run a new promotional marketing campaign.

Qantas Airways, for example, asked social media users to share their best experience stories from flying with them. Cool! What an awesome way to gain personal interaction from followers. Except the airline’s flights had all been grounded the previous day due to a labor dispute. Customers were still upset and used the Qantas hashtag to publicly complain about the airline.

If you have made this social media marketing mistake, apologize and promptly explain what actions you are taking to resolve the issue. Keep people up to date with what’s happening and tell them what steps you’re taking to ensure that this problem doesn’t arise again in the future.

3. Someone just included your business in an angry ranting tweet.

This is not a social media mistake by you, at least not yet. But have you ever heard the stories of businesses who make the mistake of going crazy in response to an angry post? They rant and rave at the angry user unprofessionally. Then, when the backlash begins and other social media users share their messages and make comments, the business claims their social media account was hacked and they have no idea who posted all those crazy tweets.

Don’t be that business! Be the business that uses an angry tweet as an opportunity to show how awesome you are at resolving customer issues. Apologize to the customer for the less than satisfactory experience and explain what you’re going to do to resolve the situation. Offer a full refund, free replacement product, personalized service, or another complimentary item. Then let the customer and your followers know that this is not the usual standard of your business. Let them know how you are dealing with the problem and how your business plans to avoid the same issue in the future.

4. Your automated social media software went haywire and tweeted the same message 500 times.

Although this is rare with quality automated social media solutions, it does occasionally happen. The same tweet is sent out every second for an hour, for example. To avoid this problem and keep your social media feeds from getting out of control, check up on your account regularly. Don’t just set it and forget it.

This problem is less likely to happen with a trusted solution, so do your homework when you’re researching which auto tweet program is right for you. Read reviews and always try the solution before you start using it for your automated social media management. If you do notice anything strange happening with your tweets, contact the auto tweet solution right away. Get the problem resolved with their customer service department as soon as possible.

A feed of spammy repeated auto tweets doesn’t look very professional, and you don’t want your followers to think your feed is being run by a robot. Make light of the situation and try to address the problem promptly and with humor. Also, go over your scheduled auto tweets at the beginning of each week to make sure they are all still relevant and that none of them will be ill-timed.

5. You said something incorrect and now everyone is calling you out on it.

Everyone makes mistakes. As a business using social media, some of your mistakes may be a bit more public than you would like. This is especially true if you post something that you thought was alright, but it turns out to be wildly inaccurate. Or it just doesn’t make sense. Or it includes information that is completely false and makes your business look like it doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

To avoid this issue in the future, research anything you’re not sure about. Double check all dates, historical facts or current references that you are including in your tweets. Also, don’t just stick in a hashtag because you see that it’s trending. Find out what it’s all about! People use inappropriate and irrelevant hashtags all the time because they don’t know what they are actually referring to.

6. You didn’t address a company mistake or issue on social media.

When your business makes a mistake, or has something big to apologize for, it’s best to spread the message as far and wide as possible. Your mistake may not have anything to do with the snafu, but you still need to address it on social media. Apologize on social media as part of your overall strategy as maintaining silence makes customers think you’re trying to avoid the issue and don’t want to publicly address it or take accountability. If it’s a major mistake or problem, accept responsibility and explain how you’re working to overcome the situation.

Being Ready

Have an easily accessible emergency/crisis communications document

Every organization or business should have a crisis communications document that clearly states what happens during an emergency. It should be loaded with information on the roles what certain staff members take over, who the spokesperson will be, template and sample information for press releases, website updates, social media, contact information, and any possible details you may need when a crisis hits.

Have a clear chain of command

In your emergency/crisis communications document, have a clear chain of command that lays out what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are and who to go to for what. Ensure that everyone understands their duties and they know where the resources they will need, such as key messages, will come from. In this same vein, it should also lay out where the personnel will gather and who will be where – such as in a war room or at a secure facility.

Identify your stakeholders

While you may know the everyday audience you aim to engage, when an emergency happens that audiences can expand rapidly. If for example there is an oil spill near a coastal town from a ship owned by a major company that normally deals in the energy, fuels, and automotive industry – you now need to speak to the several people whose livelihood depends on fishing and aquatic resources. Be prepared to speak to these new audiences as they arise with information and language they will find accessible.

Keep your data updated

Ensure your communication plan and emergency notification system is regularly updated. There is no point sending out emergency notifications or access your crisis plan if half of your contacts’ information is out of date or incorrect.

Ensure all of your contacts and infrastructure data is current by sending regular update surveys asking for the most up-to-date information and the preferred method of contact to ensure important messages are delivered and received as efficiently as possible.

Have a spokesperson trained and ready

If you don’t already, make sure that you have a member of your organization who is trained to speak to the media and has a thorough understanding of the company. Whether it is your day-to-day media specialist, or in some cases the CEO or Vice Present should the situation warrant it, make sure they are trained and keep their skills up to date. Also ensure that you have a backup for the spokesperson should they be unavailable.

Run test scenarios

Practice makes perfect. This also applies to emergency preparedness. In order to be certain everyone knows their role during a crisis and the emergency plan is carried out without any hiccups, make a point of running through the entire plan internally every few months. Send your notifications to a small group of test contacts to make sure all steps are followed and their orders makes sense.

If your emergency communication platform includes aspects of automation, running through your plan is a very easy process. Simply input your test contacts into the system and launch the scenario plan to deploy your tasks automatically in the order they were configured.

Make & review your emergency templates

Draft and create emergency message templates that can easily be filled in or adapted to fit different situations. This way, when it comes time to deploy one of these emergency templates, you don’t

need to worry whether they have been updated to include the new Emergency Operations Center manager.

Ensure you can communicate across different channels

With those templates and sample messaging in mind, make sure that they can be easily changed or have different variations suitable for sending across social media channels, uploaded to a company website, and more. In today’s digital age, people want to find information they need on a platform or social channel they wish to consume – be ready to meet that want.

When it’s over, add in lessons learned

When the crisis is over and you are prepared to return to ‘business as usual’, take the time to do a postmortem – what went right? What went wrong? What unforeseen issues did we encounters? How can you better prepare or react next time? Answer these questions after each crisis (or better yet, after every drill) to increase the resilience and flexibility of the plan.

Lessons Learned

To review, let’s go over what we’ve covered today:

1. When it comes to emergency communications, different organizations can encounter different issues but there are overarching principles that affect everyone. Be transparent, be clear, be truthful, lead with the facts, and be ready to communicate across different mediums. If you don’t have an emergency communications plan for your organization, now is the time to create one.

2. When it comes to social media, as terrible as it is – mistakes happen. Remember that there is a time to use humor and a time to apologize, with the severity of the issue being the decider. Don’t see it as an obstacle, but a chance to enhance your company’s brand with great customer service, clear and transparent communication, or a light joke with a positive message.

3. Finally – the best way to be ready is to be prepared. Have a plan outlining everything from the chain of command, to the spokesperson (and their backup), the roles of individuals, templates for messaging, and any resources you may need. Don’t forget to keep your plan updated, run regular drills, and don’t forget to keep the plan somewhere accessible.

Next Week

Next week, we’re going to be talking about digitization:

1. And how it can help your office
2. Engaging with employees digitally
3. And the best practices on how to do both

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