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Local government crisis communications leadership

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Oliver Crombach

Global Head of Inside Sales

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Oct 4, 2018
6 min read
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“In this devastating crisis in Queensland with challenges on a multitude of fronts, the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (CLW) would like to acknowledge Premier Bligh’s leadership in guiding and supporting Queenslanders through this crisis.”

Crisis situations by their very nature are impossible to control, and even predicting when they’ll hit, or how badly they’ll affect you isn’t always possible.

Public safety government officials and crisis managers need to prepare for natural disasters like earthquakes, storms and bushfires and floods, industrial incidents, technological crisis situations like data breaches, and a range of other possible scenarios including malevolence, terrorism, and other manmade disasters.

While the timing and severity of events will always be unpredictable, you can control the way you respond.

What does the public want from a leader in a crisis?

Research indicates that, in natural disasters, the public perceives the success of the operational response by the amount and speed of relevant information they receive from the emergency response officials. Therefore, a quick response is pertinent.

In times of disruption, your community needs a clear picture of what’s happening, and the confidence that an effective response is underway. People will want to know how they will be impacted and how to receive support; and emergency services and volunteers need information, fast.

The public wants to know what you know, to break through the fog of miscommunication, rumors, and misinformation.

Local government needs to be the conduit for important information flowing between the public, emergency responders, other agencies, the media, and neighboring regions, and act as the single source of truth.

Black Friday Bushfires. Image credit: ABC News

Effective leadership behaviors

"The best advice . . . is to disclose bad news sooner rather than later. Whenever a convoluted explanation is offered in favor of not disclosing, overrule the advice and disclose."-Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor, New York City, 2001, from his book “Leadership.”

Keeping the community safe relies on effective communication. The words you use, the way you use them, and the way they reach your community can have a measurable effect on their wellbeing and their recovery. Key factors to consider for any disaster response include:

  1. Execute a solidly prepared crisis response plan – disaster recovery should never be an ad hoc process, and preparations should be in place to cover any potential crises that may occur.

  2. Projection and perception – body language, eye contact, and other behavioral clues are all essential for building trust in public looking for a reliable source of information.

  3. Be the first source for information – work to ensure the facts that are being shared through the press and social media come from your crisis management team members, so that you’re controlling the message.

  4. Express empathy early and always attempt to genuinely connect to the problems and challenges your community is facing, even if you aren’t directly affected.

  5. Show competence and expertise – although the situation may be out of your comfort zone, avoid letting this show in public, or even around your team. Project the competence and confidence you’d personally expect.

  6. Remain honest and open – even when communicating bad news or news that may have a negative effect, the public needs to have confidence that what you’re sharing is a reliable source of truth.

Image credit: CNN News

Creating successful communication strategies

“I didn’t think much about the dire warnings of an approaching hurricane called Katrina… I went shopping at the Ferragamo shoe store… The next morning the airwaves were filled with devastating pictures from New Orleans... I knew right away that I should never have left Washington.”- Rice, Condoleezza. "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington."

Positivity should be front and centre during a crisis but there is a fine line. Constant smiles, while people are suffering, isn’t going to help or endear you. While it may be tempting to try and paint a rosy picture of events, the amount of information available to everyone now means that the facts will surface soon enough, and anything glossed over will likely cause you irreversible reputational damage.

Don’t withhold information. The growth of social media, and ‘citizen journalism’ means negative news can spread fast, potentially inflaming and exacerbating already volatile situations, unless your crisis communication team can stay ahead of the unfolding event.

Avoid responding to information or misinformation on different channels to where it was raised. Holding press conferences to address public relations verbally and refute issues raised on social media the day before is too late, just like sending a tweet to answer address a public rally misses the human mark. Responders need to address communications when and where they originate.

Mixed messages from multiple experts can force the public to have to “select” one of many messages to believe and act on. During an emergency, media coverage will often focus on various experts, who will all share their points of view. To make sure you’re helping to shape and direct the message, it’s critical to maintain a positive working relationship with the media.

Queensland Floods 2011. Image credit: Martin Shaw

Working with the media

The news media plays a major role in any crisis so it’s important to include news outlets in your emergency risk communication strategy.

Media relations will make up a large portion of any crisis communication plan and your communication team should be alerted immediately when an emergency strikes. Pre-approved holding statements can be useful tools to be able to update and deploy rapidly as needed.

All communication with the media should be open, honest, and informative to ensure the most correct and useful information is then being shared with the public. Ensure that the information you share with the media is the same information you are sharing with other external stakeholders and through your internal communication to avoid confusion and mixed messages to your public and communities.

Leadership in a crisis – Anna Bligh, former Premier of Queensland

Following the devastating 2011 floods, premier Anna Bligh became the standard bearer for disaster management and recovery efforts.

In the immediate aftermath of the peak of the disaster, she gave a speech which has been widely credited as having rallied the devastated state.

As the storms intensified, she gave constant weather updates, directly from affected areas, traveling the State to show the preparations being made, and the immediate efforts to help save lives and property. Her presence was shown to inspire confidence in the community, not only in her own efforts but also in the abilities of responders to deal with the effects.

Moreover, her genuine empathy, during interviews and meetings with residents won her considerable public respect and approval, with one of the largest popularity upswings in Australian Government history.

Anna Bligh, Queensland Floods 2011. Image credit:

To recap

Thorough planning, effective leadership, and having the right tools in place can make the difference between an effective response, and a disaster spiraling out of control and turning into a catastrophe.

In the next edition of our Local Government crisis communications series, we’ll outline the steps needed for effective crisis planning, and the communications tools available to execute a multi-level response.

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