From the Boston Marathon tragedy: some lessons on crisis communications

Not to jump on the bandwagon, but my parents live in Boston and I consider it my adopted hometown. After following the coverage of yesterday’s tragic disaster at the marathon, I wanted to share some reflections on how Boston authorities have demonstrated some best practices in their crisis communications, and some basic tips on speaking to the press during crises. I should note I’m not in Boston right now, and if you have another opinions about the City’s response, I’m happy to hear it.

I’m going to make this mostly about interviews and press conferences to focus this post a bit. If you’re keen to learn more about the social media side of things related to this tragic event, I urge you to check out Timo Luege’s blog post on the Boston Marathon explosions over at Social Media for Good (disclosure: I’m the girlfriend he mentions in the post!).

I have found that from giving press briefings to answering media inquiries, authorities of the city of Boston and the Massachusetts Governor have shown compassion for the victims, shared clear and concise information about the event and the investigation and made themselves available for questions to the press and the public. In short, they’ve appeared as on-the-ball (or ‘with it’ or ‘well-informed’, whichever you understand best) leaders who care about human beings. And that’s really what you’re going for in crisis communications.

Press conference with city, state and federal authorities, Boston, April 16, 2013. Photo CBS Boston

Press conference with city, state and federal authorities, Boston, April 16, 2013. Photo CBS Boston

If you’re interested, here’s the press conference just hours after the explosions, and here’s a longer one from the following morning.

My takeaways from press conferences and interviews with authorities in Massachusetts, as well as my own experiences as a spokesperson during crises, includes the following tips.

  1. Give a very clear, brief message. It could be literally one sentence, depending on the complexity and sensitivity of the situation. Remember that the media and their listeners/viewers/readers may be panicked, confused or over-excited about the situation, especially if they are directly affected by the disaster, and not in a state to process complex information. Furthermore, if you’re working for a non-profit organization or a public institution, it is not your job to feed (or worse, create!) any unnecessary drama. 
  2. Show sympathy for affected people and thank people who have provided relief, like emergency medical professionals. Put this right at the top of your interview/press conference, either just before or just after your key message(s). Not only is it the right thing to do, but it keeps the focus on people instead of wandering off into commentary about politics, why this happened, who the perpetrators are, etc.
  3. Share what you know, but decide ahead of time what your red lines are. What can’t you say for security reasons? Should you reveal that your staff have been attacked at the same time that you’re trying to airlift them out? Also, what is appropriate for you to share as a representative of your organization? For example, as the spokesperson for Oxfam in Haiti in October 2010, it was not my role to speculate if the cholera outbreak could be classified as an epidemic; that was an announcement for the national health authorities to make.
  4. Members of the media may push you very hard to comment on issues you cannot or should not comment on. Understand that their job is to find information. However, don’t get caught up in the moment and reveal too much — or speculate on something you know nothing about just to grab air time.

  5. In connection to the previous point, be clear about the limits of your information. Don’t be afraid say something like “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question at this time,” if the reporter keeps pushing.
  6. When your phone is ringing off the hook, it’s usually best to respond to inquiries, unless doing so is a security risk. You might not have a lot to say, but if your organization has a legitimate perspective to share (perhaps you’re assisting victims, or perhaps you witnessed the event), prepare a line or two. So long as you have something useful to add to the conversation, I’m a fan of proactive communication. Furthermore, if you don’t answer the questions, somebody else may — and what they say may not be to your liking.
  7. That being said, if you were directly affected by the disaster or incident, you may not be the best person to speak to the press, even if you’re a seasoned media professional. Furthermore, you may not be capable of realizing, in that moment, that you’re not really in good shape to speak in public. Before you speak to the press, turn to some trusted colleagues unaffected by the disaster (such as a colleague working at a distant location) and have them give you a sympathetic sanity check.
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