Damage Control: How Cities Respond to Crisis Situations

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Published on February 19, 2016, at 9:15 a.m.
by Drew Pendleton.

In today’s fast-paced world, a crisis can strike anywhere at any time. To combat this possibility, crisis management is a widely practiced sector within the public relations profession. While crises may vary in scale and severity, crisis communication plans have become, as David Weiner of The Ivey Business Journal noted, a “vital part of [companies’] risk management and business continuity strategies.”

When a city is the institution facing a crisis, the focus on making sure business goes on is joined by another goal: ensuring the safety of the city’s citizens.

“Overall, when we’re looking at a situation, the number one issue is public safety,” Rene Fielding, director of the Office of Emergency Management for the city of Boston, Massachusetts, said. “We have a myriad of ways to deal with that situation, from press conferences with the mayor to getting safety information out there to let the public know what happened and what we’re doing.”

As Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management Inc. in Los Angeles, California, noted, the key to an effective response to a crisis situation is being prepared. From knowing what vulnerabilities exist to having contingency plans in place, he said being prepared before a crisis has its benefits.

“There’s an inverse proportion between the speed of your response and the damage you take,” Bernstein said. “The faster you respond, the less damage you take.”

Fielding knows this firsthand.

PR crisis Boton Bombing2

On the afternoon of April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As news of the bombing spread across the world, a team of city officials, including Fielding, convened to put the city’s crisis communication plan into practice, advising the public on current developments and dispelling rumors on social media.

Fielding said the city has been able to use the lessons learned from the bombing and ensuing manhunt to further improve its communication plans for other crises, such as severe weather.

“During an extreme weather situation, we open up our Emergency Operations Center and bring in a representative from every department to contribute,” Fielding said. “Having everyone in the room helps us to be efficient and proactive in how we respond to issues.”

Boston’s approach to crisis situations avoided what Bernstein recognized as a common pitfall for cities.

“Cities make a lot of mistakes in scrambling to figure out who does what and who says what,” Bernstein said. “Those conflicting messages cause confusion.”

However, in the wake of a crisis lies an opportunity to strengthen the communities it impacts. As Paul Argenti noted in his December 2002 article “Crisis Communications: Lessons from 9/11”, being able to communicate effectively during a crisis “allows [an organization] not only to weather a crisis but strengthen their organization internally.”

The response to the Marathon bombings, Fielding said, allowed for the city’s recovery efforts to shine.

“If there’s one thing we are, we’re resilient,” Fielding explained. “We looked at our communications and made sure that we emphasized how the city’s come back, and how Boston’s both a big city and a tight-knit community. It showed that we had control and that the city was safe.”

PR crisis Boton Bombing

Although cities present a large scale to manage during a crisis, Bernstein said there is no real change in approach. However, he noted that cities commonly lose sight of being compassionate to the public, instead focusing first on statistics about the situation’s severity.

Bernstein emphasized five tenets that he considers key to approaching any crisis.

“You have to be prompt, honest, interactive, informative and compassionate,” Bernstein said. “If you can reduce the damage, that’s a win.”

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