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Communication nation: When crisis hits, technology is your greatest ally

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Oliver Crombach

Global Head of Inside Sales

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4 Oct 2018
6 min read
Lakefront properties engulfed in wildfire smoke

2016 was the hottest year on record, globally, and the World Meteorological Organisation forecasts that severe weather events and natural disasters will continue to worsen as climate change intensifies.

Heatwaves, drought, bushfires, more extreme rainfall, the potential for higher-impact tropical cyclones, increased coastal flooding, and damage to council-owned assets, roads, footpaths, parks, and tree reserves are all likely impacts of weather-related events on local communities.

Storm impacts can be catastrophic for people, property, and the overall economy. The Queensland floods in 2011 forced the evacuation of thousands of people from at least 70 towns and cities including the capital city Brisbane. Over 200,000 people were affected, the damage initially was estimated at around A$1 billion, and the estimated reduction in Australia's GDP reached about A$30 billion. 

That same year, more than fifty communities in western and central Victoria were also significantly impacted by the flooding that affected large parts of Victoria.

Arial view of flooded city

Victoria floods 2011. Image Credit Bendigo Advertiser

Local governments also need to be constantly vigilant in preparing for non-weather incidents like cyber-attacks, industrial disasters, and man-made attacks like violence and terrorism.

The amount of information circulating during any extreme event means conventional methods like manual call trees and spreadsheets of contacts aren’t enough to coordinate an effective response or supply the community and responders with all the information they now expect.

Fortunately, modern communications technology can equip local responders with highly sophisticated tools for emergency management and monitoring, and keep all stakeholders updated with real-time, 2-way information flows.

We've put together best practice tips for using digital communication tools for informing your crisis management process and dealing with a significant incident when it occurs.

A framework for effective crisis planning

  1. Start with the plan — a written crisis management plan should be in place, which includes specific actions that will be taken in the event of a crisis. The key objectives during any crisis are to identify potential threats, protect any individual (employee or public) who may be at risk, ensure that all stakeholders are kept informed, and ultimately ensure the community survives through adequate risk management. Proactive planning is the cornerstone of crisis response, so seek advice from external specialists, as needed, to ensure that worst-case scenarios are adequately mapped, and the right tools and resources are in place for an effective response. The full impact of severe events can’t always be forecast, but as wide a range as possible should be modeled in the planning process.

  2. Central stakeholder coordination — as the trusted centre of your community, the local government needs to take responsibility for coordinating information flow and response with all stakeholders, including residents, emergency responders, state and federal government, and the media.

  3. Identify a spokesperson — a key spokesperson within your crisis management team needs to be identified, prepared, and kept as up-to-date as possible to ensure that the media, staff, customers, and the public are kept informed with a clear, consistent message. This doesn’t mean the Mayor or Councillors need to front news conferences. This responsibility may be better suited to the chief responders who have extensive experience in incident response and are well-versed in providing an initial response, such as the CFA, SES, or Police, but the council's leadership team should have a close stake in coordinating the what, when, how and why of information being released, particularly to mitigate any potential negative publicity.

  4. Keep employees informed— as a crisis situation unfolds, employees are the main conduit to keeping communications flowing between all relevant stakeholders, so it’s essential to keep the workforce informed with all relevant up-to-date information to prevent the circulation of incorrect rumours and potentially negative statements. Don’t forget to keep suppliers and customers updated as well so that the business of local government can keep functioning with as much relevant information as available.

  5. Update early and often— be proactive and early with sharing news, even when the whole picture isn’t clear. It is better to over-communicate than to allow rumours to fill the void. Start with summary statements on whatever is initially known, and provide updated action plans and new developments as early and as often as possible to stay ahead of the 24/7 news cycle.

  6. Social media – ensure that all the channels that your stakeholders may be using are covered, not just the traditional areas in which critical statements were released, such as press releases or the shire website. Nothing’s more damaging than incorrect information being live tweeted without your ability to see and respond with facts and the appropriate damage control.

Thorough planning for any potential crisis is the baseline of effective crisis preparation. Responding effectively requires these plans to be executed with communications tools purpose-built to securely and accurately coordinate the response, and manage the vast amount of information that needs to be captured, shared, and acted upon.

State of the Art Crisis Communications Technology

Screenshot of map with specific points identified

- Communications planning

Modern crisis communications tools should have the capability of adapting to all possible critical events, so an important part of the planning process should be the integration between tools and scenarios. This cuts down response time, improves contact accuracy, and ensures the right people can be reached in a timely manner.

- Remote, secure infrastructure

Remove critical information assets from the path of disaster. When a severe weather event like flooding or fire affects your community, you need to be able to continue to communicate without disruption, when there is a very real risk of data centres and communications infrastructure being impacted.

Secure, distributed, cloud-hosted platforms will allow you to keep communicating even in the worst-case local damage scenarios.

- Multi-channel message streams

Messages should be sent on the appropriate channels needed to make sure the entire team is reached, including SMS, Voice, On-demand HTML5 Micro Apps, RSS, social media, or email.

- Message templates

Message templates should be prepared with specifics that can be rapidly altered during incidents, thereby saving time by providing pre-defined communication and response options.

- Message automation

Where possible, communications platforms should be integrated with monitoring systems, allowing details to be auto-populated into message templates. Response requests can be raised automatically and sent directly to the resolution team members.

- 2-way conversation Flow

It’s not enough to just send messages, there needs to be a system in place to track receipt, allow the receiver to respond as needed, and escalate when required.

- Make use of an integrated communications platform

Best practice crisis communications programs are built around cross-channel communications platforms, which provide interactive, responsive communications, comprehensive reporting, and message delivery status transparency for key staff and senior stakeholders.

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When emergencies or disasters inevitably occur, your community relies on the local government to be prepared to act decisively, coordinate with other responders, and present an open line of trusted communication.

Thorough planning, effective leadership, and having the right tools in place are the building blocks of effective crisis management.

Planned, open and effective communication is the key to coping with a crisis. Leverage technology to deliver planned, multi-channel, 2-way communication streams to coordinate your disaster response, keep all stakeholders informed, and minimise the risk of financial and reputation harm, and the risk to human life.

Whispir for Local Government

Learn more about how our cloud platform can help local governments achieve intelligent, rich communications, or download our free guide on mastering effective crisis messaging.

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