I like smacking arcade vermin as much as the next person. Whack-a-mole is alternatively satisfying and frustrating. But the frustration generally lasts longer than the satisfaction. In other words, just reacting to the problem popping up in front of you only gets you so far.
Consider that when planning for or managing a crisis. Communicators don’t have to play along. Remember the Kipling line to “keep your head?” That’s the way to play.
The response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak seems a bit whack-a-mole. One problem pops up, you smack it, and another pops up somewhere else. It’s hard to see the strategy through the chaos because all you’re doing is reacting. There are some notable exceptions, but as you watch this play out it looks like a lot of people just seem to keep whacking away.
The outbreak/epidemic/pandemic was a significant discussion topic among public information officers (PIO) at the recent Marketing and Communications Workshop of the American Public Transportation (APTA). People compared notes on preparations being made or discussed by their respective agencies. Keep in mind APTA is a very diverse trade association with members as large as New York and as small as agencies with fewer than 10 buses. The discussions were just as varied.
Because I’ve been in the industry a long time, lectured frequently on crisis communications and handled crisis communications at Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) during the Ebola (2014) outbreak and Swine Flu (2009) among others, my fellow transit communicators had questions about their current preparations.
It’s simple: focus on what you know.
Remember these things and call me if you’re not better
The events moving a crisis from emergent to imminent typical are fast-moving and confusing. The randomness of the situation is often no one’s fault. It’s just the nature of a crisis. But while seeking information about larger organizational plans (and being part of the conversation) act on what you know. Take advantage of the time and consider what customers, stakeholders and media need to know and what you’re equipped to tell them.
You have been here before
You may not have experienced a pandemic, but chances are good you’ve been through something that has significantly interrupted your business. In the case of transit, something that’s kept you from putting out your usual service. Remember what you told the various audiences. Review your notes on operations. Chances are this won’t be a lot different.
You are not a healthcare expert
This is the part where the operations and emergency management folks tell communicators to “stay in their lane.” They’re right. You talk about buses and trains. But it’s your job to know how the buses and trains are being affected. However, you’re not an infectious disease expert. Talk about your services and link widely and easily to the vast resources of the Centers for Disease Control and your local and state emergency management officials. They should have the lead anyway.
Get and stay connected with your peers
This is another part of being prepared. Make sure you understand who has the lead in your organization for the agency response and know who they’re going to outside for facts. Establish or reestablish contacts with your counterparts at the local emergency management or health agencies. They should talk about what they’re doing, and you do the same. The good news is they’re going to get a lot more media attention than you.
Take extra steps to keep them informed about your operations and plans so they can be included in their communications. It’s never a bad thing to have local officials brag about you in their media availabilities. After all, we’re all in this together.
Follow your transit (or other industry) colleagues and see what they’re doing. Compare notes. Vent frustration as needed. Remember every location will handle things differently. Remember all of your excellent advice will not be followed. It’s likely not the first time that’s happened.
Keep your messages clear and your information easy to find.
Your core message is simple and should be familiar: “We are going to keep you safe.” It’s not only the truth, it also provides some coverage if you have to change your normal operations.
During your communications planning, consider the best ways to deliver your information. How can you use your website or social channels? Email still works. Can you leverage local media to spread the word? Think about how you can reach people outside of regular work hours. These things don’t keep regular office hours.
You and your agency have been here before. I realize every organization is different. It’s all relative. But take a moment to breathe and reflect on what you know and how you’ve managed previous critical incidents. You got through that. You’ll get through this latest round of whack-a-mole too.