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Managing Crises in Today’s 24/7 Communications World

By Kristin Withrow posted 11 days ago

First aid kit and stethoscope

By Scott Summerfield and Sheri Benninghoven, APR, Principals, SAE Communications


Special districts that embrace today’s rapidly changing communications environment and plan for difficult situations will increase public trust and confidence in agency decisions. 


What issues are we most frequently facing today?  Well, for starters:

  • Pandemic response shifts and the resulting public frustration
  • Year-round natural disasters that no longer have a “season”
  • Public Safety Power Shutoffs that wreak havoc on your operations
  • Cyberattacks that can cripple your operations and shred your credibility
  • First Amendment “auditors” who seek embarrassing reactions from your staff
  • Elected officials commenting on social media with unverified information
  • Public Records Act requests that reveal embarrassing exchanges


We’re also facing numerous crisis communications barriers, such as managing constant crises that drag organizations into tactics vs. strategy, less experienced reporters who have dramatically less knowledge of how public agencies operate, and troubling evidence that communicators aren’t at the table from the start of high-exposure issues.


Understanding communications trends that are driving public agency response can help you get ahead of tough situations:

  • We’re fighting for attention with countless other agencies and companies
  • Social media drives your story and can lead to viral misinformation that reduces your credibility
  • Mobile consumption is predominant – desktops are dead


Public agency communicators were recently surveyed about their most efficient crisis communications tools.  Top external channels included Facebook posts, agency websites, and news releases, followed by community emails and Twitter posts.  Top internal resources included all-staff emails, followed by virtual or in-person all-staff meetings.  Note that the ongoing work-from-home structure has clearly influenced internal communication.


How should your agency prepare for a crisis of confidence or other emergency?

  • Communicate clearly and frequently – in an age of “I want it all now,” stakeholders demand concise and consistent updates
  • Develop an Emergency Public Information or Crisis Communications Plan – your most important tool, but must be created before a crisis…not during
  • Focus on your team – create an internal communications team before your next crisis; this resource will be the hub of your internal and external response
  • Identify and train multiple spokespersons – a single spokesperson may be sufficient day-to-day, but you’ll be overwhelmed when the media descends
  • Relationships matter – crises rarely involve just one department, and a strong relationship between communications, legal, finance, HR, and others will ensure that your response benefits from a wide range of viewpoints
  • Work on your communications systems – during crises, you can’t redesign your website, create a graphic design team, develop a video storytelling unit, craft a resident newsletter, or build a key contacts database
  • Foster a culture of messaging – key messages are how you ensure that your entire agency communicates consistently with the most important content
  • Use fewer words and more images – don’t fight limited attention spans; use fewer words, more graphics, more photos, and more video
  • Acknowledge unknowns – empathy is critical yet often missing, saying “we don’t know” is OK, recognize fears, respect emotions
  • Avoid guesses about duration – the pandemic has reinforced the notion that we often can’t predict how long a challenging situation will last
  • Stay flexible and accessible – your crisis will evolve and you have a responsibility to stay connected with the media, the public, and your staff; this commitment reduces rumors, misinformation, and mistrust


The past couple of years have highlighted public agency resiliency in ways that were previously unimaginable.  Good communication is an essential part of crisis response, and a thoughtful, strategic approach now will give you a solid foundation when you need it most.


SAE Communications provides public agency strategic and crisis communications planning, response, and training. More information is available at