A Content Strategy Approach to Online Crisis Communications (Part One)

Campus emergency phone

Do you know your role as a communicator during an emergency?

The most important communications plans at our universities are the ones we hope we never have to use. These are our plans for crisis communications, to be activated when a threat is posed to the health and safety of our campus community. Nowadays, these plans revolve heavily around electronic communications.

Many universities shifted their crisis communications planning into high gear following the fatal shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. Money was thrown into robust multiplatform alert solutions, and hours of committee time were spent developing giant binders of crisis workflows and procedures. Beyond the “gunman on campus” scenario, the expectations for communicating campus closings due to inclement weather have evolved thanks to the advent on the web—the scroller on Channel 5 is no longer enough.

There is no content more useful or usable than that which you need during a crisis.

But how many of us feel truly prepared? Are our crisis communications plans living documents — are they regularly revisited, reviewed, revised and rehearsed? How many of us contributed to those giant binders only to later use them as door jambs?

With the new academic year upon us, I’ve been thinking about crisis communications and how it could benefit from a content strategy mindset. According to Kristina Halvorson, “Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” And there is no content more useful or usable than that which you need during a crisis.

While we don’t have much time to think and plan as a crisis is unfolding, we do have that time right now.

Core Principles

We don’t get to pick when or how a crisis hits. But we can control how we communicate once it does. In my view, our crisis communications should be:

  • Real-time
    Information needs to be shared in as close to real-time as possible so people can act in the best interest of their safety. We also need to monitor and triage in real-time, as the likelihood for misinformation is high in a developing, stressful situation.

  • Accurate
    To the point about misinformation, we have to be sure that the information we are disseminating is 100 percent valid. Is campus all-clear or not? Is all of campus affected by the power outage or just certain buildings? By the time we get around to spreading the word about the tornado warning, is it still active? It’s on us, as communicators, to not share erroneous information.

  • Consistent
    Inconsistent messaging happens when different people charged with communications duties aren’t working off the same script, and may not even be in touch at all. Consistency and accuracy go hand-in-hand; an accurate message sent through one channel is compromised by an inconsistent message delivered elsewhere. Below, we’ll talk about structuring crisis communications roles around ensuring consistency.

  • Actionable
    We need to share news you can use. This is no time for marketing or posturing. People need to know what to do, so we need to provide clear, direct communication.

Roles and Resources

Crisis communications plans must be regimented enough to be a set plan, yet agile enough to handle the unanticipated. – Colleen Brennan-Barry

In her excellent presentation “Sound the Alarm: Preparing (& Surviving) Web-Based Crisis Communications Strategy” at this year’s Penn State Web Conference, Monroe Community College’s Colleen Brennan-Barry said, “Crisis communications plans must be regimented enough to be a set plan, yet agile enough to handle the unanticipated.” This is a key tenet to consider when determining your roles and resources around crisis communications.

When assembling and preparing your team, members should:

  • Know their roles
    The crisis team should be operating from a common playbook. When a crisis hits, there should be a process in place for convening available team members and assigning roles. This should be a well-rehearsed process, and there should be no surprises—there is no time for surprises.

  • Be empowered to fulfill them
    This means everything from being fully trained to having administrative access to the blog to knowing that in the absence of approval from Stakeholder A and Stakeholder B, she can go ahead and hit “send” on the big message. Empowerment and knowledge mitigate uncertainty and inaction.
The goal should be to disseminate information across every conceivable channel where people might happen upon it. But if you do not have a plan in place that accounts for the management of all those channels during a crisis, you will fall short.

To the point about being “agile enough to handle the unanticipated,” don’t shape your plan around the ideal alignment of staff availability and skill sets. Prioritize a hierarchy of channels—know your hubs (e.g. your multiplatform alert system; your website) and your spokes (e.g. social media; campus listservs) and think through the purpose of each. Expect there to be people missing and platforms that don’t work as intended. Cross-train thoroughly. Appoint backups. If Twitter triage is part of your plan, make sure you consider who will be handling that, what training they require and if you can spare that resource from other more critical communication duties as determined by your hierarchy.

The goal should be to disseminate information across every conceivable channel where people might happen upon it. But if you do not have a plan in place that accounts for the management of all those channels during a crisis, you will fall short. Members of your community may be asking pressing questions or even spreading misinformation via social media. The digital signage network, with prominent visibility in a dozen campus venues, may be idly cycling through sports scores and events listings when it could be taken over with a single crisis message that may reach those without access to a device. If you are not staffed to support all core channels at once during a crisis, you need to prioritize what channels you do support and inform your community in advance where they should expect to hear updates.

Messaging

I break crisis communications messaging down into three essential roles: sourcing, shaping and sharing. Most often, the source of the message is going to be campus police, public safety staffers or others who are among first responders during a crisis. Our role typically bridges shaping and sharing, crafting a message that passes on the information from the source and enables it to be shared across platforms to multiple people. And when it comes to sharing, our audiences share in that critical task through word-of-mouth amplification.

I break crisis communications messaging down into three essential roles: sourcing, shaping and sharing.

We may not have time to craft messages from scratch in a crisis, which makes having scripts and templates extremely important. These templates, to Brennan-Barry’s point, should be regimented enough to provide a solid framework for clear, consistent messaging but agile enough to allow for modifications as necessary. While we can’t anticipate every possible scenario, we can—thanks to past precedent at both our and other institutions—establish a core of likely scenarios, as well as more generic templates that lay out the key points to communicate.

In documentation created by our emergency management staff at Tufts, we have what I think is a very handy (and fittingly brief) style guide. It provides four framing questions for all messaging: what is the emergency, where is it, what action should people take and where should they go for more information. The guide also reminds of the 160-character limit for text messages; to make sure days and date match; to use clear, plain language; and to not use abbreviations. Why no abbreviations? We may, with a single keystroke, be pushing a message across multiple platforms, including voicemail, where abbreviations may either be translated inaccurately or hold less meaning.

But Wait, There’s More

Part two: Channels and audience, the role of social media and what governance means with regard to online crisis communications plans.

Photo by eliazar / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Very good summary of core principles. As someone who has been doing crisis communications for many years, I’ve found that a post-crisis review of what worked well, what didn’t work so well and lessons learned is also an essential component of crisis communications planning. Certainly, no two crises are alike, but evaluating how you and your staff handled latest crisis can certainly help prepare you, your staff and your campus for future incidents. Identifying and understanding roles and responsibilities is an important aspect of crisis planning.

    The reverse is also true: Planning ahead of time for every possible type of crisis is important.

    And when it comes to content strategy, we also need to empower our communicators to get the word out quickly, without having to descend into some arcane messaging clearance loop. Communicate now, vet later – Acknowledge and accept that you may not have the most accurate information but don’t let that keep you from getting the most important, urgent information out.

What do you think?

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