By Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
Today's business and organizational leaders know a grasp of crisis communications planning and response is an essential element in their management portfolio. But among many competing demands for their attention, it often gets put on the back burner. When the day comes to respond to a crisis, they're left scrambling without a plan in place.
The next best thing: an off-the-shelf guidebook a CEO, executive director, corporate counsel or even an inexperienced communication professional can turn to for practical, no frills advice on how to organize their resources, form a response, and put together messages that convey the right details and tone with respect for their audiences' needs.
There are surprisingly few given the growing need driven by the river rapids of online communication. The majority of crisis communication guidebooks are "case studies" written by academics, based on solid theory. These aren't too useful in the trenches when a fast moving crisis hits.
Former firefighter, attorney, award-winning journalist, and professional communicator Doug Levy stepped forward to fill this need with his brand new guide, "The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts" (Public Safety Press, 2018).
"When I left my job running the communications office at Columbia University Medical Center, several people urged me to write a book like this," Levy told me. "Over the years, people learned that I was one of the people they wanted in the room if there was an emergency, because of how I stayed calm and focused. We also developed ways to organize our emergency communications and those protocols are adaptable to any kind of organization and any kind of emergency."
This tidy 100-page book is directed at public information officers working within public safety organizations. Often, these individuals come from within the ranks, and are pressed into service as communicators with little or no formal training. By the nature of their work, the stakes are extremely high for them and their agencies when keeping the public informed about a swift-moving emergency such as a mass shooter incident, major disaster, or health emergency.
"Police, fire and other government communicators have special responsibilities and authority, which impacts decision-making, especially in emergencies," said Levy. "My book is intended to help leaders recognize how communications can help them and their communities in emergencies -- and guide them and their teams through planning, preparation and response."
What emergency responders understand is the concept of the "golden hour," the proven principle in trauma care showing survival rates improve dramatically when injuries are treated aggressively within the first 60 minutes after they occur. Levy has adopted this approach for crisis communication, distilling down the process into communication field triage instructions to get any organization through the first minutes and hours of a crisis by addressing the most critical needs first.
This approach provides a template any business or organization facing a crisis can implement. Information technology has accelerated the communication timeline in such a significant way, everyone must think about their own "golden hour" in a crisis. When I asked Levy about this, he wholeheartedly agreed.
"The fundamental approaches work in any situation, in any organization, and in any crisis. You need to establish relationships and build trust before an emergency starts, you need to understand your audience, and you need to know how you are going to communicate when a major event occurs. All of that is part of planning and needs to be done in advance. If your building is on fire, it's too late to figure out how to access your social media accounts."
You don't have days to respond to a crisis, and you don't have time for a textbook. With guidance from Levy's principles and checklists, you can take steps now to prepare in advance for your crisis communication response. In the worst case scenario, these checklists and reminders will get you through it without too many lasting scars.
"The Communication Golden Hour" is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a veteran strategic communication and crisis response consultant. She is the president of the Falcon Valley Group based in San Diego, California Connect with Gayle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/falconvalleygroup/