Wayne Langley

Let’s face it — no one wants to think about something catastrophic happening at their community. Fires, floods and earthquakes are all very real possibilities that communities must prepare for. In modern times, we’ve also added situations, such as active shooters, elopements and bomb threats to the canon of issues communities should be prepared to handle. With this in mind, many organizations provide extensive training to employees who would have to respond to these events in hopes that they can keep residents safe and minimize physical damage to property and systems. However, there is another more serious type of damage that communities might face — a damaged reputation from poor communication.

To be clear, at absolutely no time should any organization try to preserve its reputation at the cost of others’ safety. That’s not what I’m talking about at all! Rather, I’m focusing on the story that comes out after one of these events occurs. In the world of public relations, this is referred to as crisis communication. Being able to keep cool and relay important information in the face of adversity is a skill that most people don’t inherently have, even in the best of times. Now, imagine yourself in a highly stressful situation where you are being asked tough questions and accused of malfeasance. At that moment, how you react to reporters and interested parities can either set minds at ease or exacerbate a problem to new heights.

Most communities don’t have the luxury of having an on-site, dedicated communications person. Usually, communications is handled at a corporate level or is defaulted to an employee in an adjacent field, such as marketing or human resources. These individuals are rarely prepared to handle an emerging situation, and corporate’s ability to respond may lag for a variety of reasons. News agencies today aren’t going to sit idly by while they wait for your PR director show up and take control of the situation. They are going to start fleshing out a story wherever they can find it, probably embellishing along the way in hopes of making the situation more interesting for viewers and readers. It’s in those critical moments, immediately after an event occurs, that you need to take control of the story.

To accomplish this, we recommend that every community have the following three items in place:

  1. Resident, employee and family emergency alert system — Technology today makes this very easy. If there is an incident at your community at any time, you should have a system in place to immediately and efficiently contact current residents and their family members. The communications that go out on these broadcasts should be prepared in advance (as much as possible) and speak to the safety of those involved. In an emergency, the first concern loved ones have is for the physical well-being of their family members. Addressing those types of questions is your top priority.
  2. Contact information for leadership — Communities should have a list of contact information for key officials that will be more able to handle difficult questions. This can help redirect reporters to individuals that they can talk to and alleviate the stress being put on staff that might be asked to comment on an issue.
  3. Training for staff — Your staff should know and understand your policies about who can and can’t make statements on behalf of the organization. Employees generally know they shouldn’t try to act as representatives, but they may be asked by a reporter about what they saw or experienced personally. Until a situation is under control, employees shouldn’t respond to these questions at all. Therefore, providing a bit of training and information before an issue arises can help to mitigate any comments that might be made later on.

Every community owes it to its residents to have plans in place for a myriad number of emergencies — and most already have done this. However, it’s important that they take these exercises a step further and imagine the role that timely communications will play in incident response. Maintenance and security might be prepared for the next calamity, but is your executive director ready? How about sales & marketing? Now is the time to address these issues, before an incident occurs.