Article Features Scott SummerfieldSheri Benninghoven

Crisis at City Hall: Planning Ahead Can Make The Difference, Part 1

Scott Summerfield is a former public information officer for the City of Newark and former communications director for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and can be reached at Sheri Benninghoven served as the first communications director for the League, following her tenure as public information officer for the City of Anaheim, and can be reached at Summerfield and Benninghoven, principals of SAE Communications, now consult with cities on communications planning and messaging.

Your week started normally. Then a reporter called asking about a variety of compensation, benefit and pension issues. Your gut told you these questions are probably only the beginning of a potentially devastating investigative story. How do you respond? Do you have a crisis communications plan in place to help you weather this storm? Developing a comprehensive strategy can help you anticipate tough media scrutiny and prepare your city for the difficult days ahead.

Your city is likely well-equipped to handle crises such as earthquakes, wildfires or floods. But many city leaders assume that these are the only situations that require advance preparation and training. In fact, it’s more likely that man-made crises will grab media attention and threaten your city’s credibility.

We’ve all seen such stories. Whether it’s pension spiking, sexual harassment, computer data theft or embezzlement, the results are frighteningly similar: The city hasn’t planned for a “non-traditional” crisis and its less-than-stellar response prolongs the misery. Crises that hit city hall take a variety of shapes, but all have the potential to completely disrupt normal operations, make public officials defensive, shake employees’ confidence and erode community good will that has taken years to earn.

One Northern California fire chief suddenly found his department’s pensions under scrutiny by an aggressive investigative journalist who requested numerous collective bargaining, human resources and finance documents. The chief and many of his senior staff, who were in the midst of finalizing a new budget, put all other efforts on hold for several days to work with the reporter in-person and on the phone, explain the documents and answer numerous tough questions. When the dust finally settled, the chief summarized the stressful experience by saying, “I became a crisis communicator this week.”

Why does a strategic response matter? Imagine what your taxpayers will think the next time you ask them to support a bond measure or fee increase if they believe you’ve wasted their money and haven’t been straightforward with them when it counted most. 

As you face a crisis, it’s helpful for your city to keep in mind three important communications principles:

  1. Tell the truth;
  2. Taxpayers have a right to know; and
  3. Residents must have confidence in the city. 

Though the principles may seem obvious, consider all the times you’ve seen public officials ignore them — and the negative news coverage that resulted. That alone should compel you to build these concepts into your city’s organizational culture.

Learning From Others’ Mistakes

Analysis of agencies that have suffered excessively from crises shows several consistent communications missteps that can easily be avoided by planning ahead. The first step is to identify a team of savvy city leaders who can use the concepts presented here, along with the comprehensive supporting materials available online, and start the planning process now before a crisis actually strikes. Assuming the worst isn’t easy, but you’ll soon develop a good sense of the types of crises you may face; then you can begin crafting policies to deal with whatever comes your city’s way. Understanding the pitfalls suffered by other cities will help you discover your weaknesses and develop specific tactics to prepare your organization.

Respond quickly and completely. Wishfully thinking that the problem will go away if you don’t respond is one of the top blunders made by agencies under fire. News coverage today continues around the clock. If a reporter unearths a juicy new nugget about your crisis, chances are that it will appear online almost immediately. The media must have 24/7 access to your spokesperson, who in turn must have the latest crisis updates. Your response can’t be solely reactionary. Continually monitor every print, broadcast and online news source covering your crisis, modify your strategy if necessary and actively seek ways to get your message out using every available tool.

Don’t speak unless you’re prepared. City staff members who consent to interviews without thoroughly thinking through their comments or who speculate about the crisis often make a bad situation worse. Interviews are tense settings under the best circumstances, but when the city is under fire it’s impossible to think strategically. Without preparation, multiple city spokespersons can inadvertently provide conflicting information and inject even more controversy.

Keep your public information officials (PIO) or spokesperson in the loop. Although many cities don’t have a professionally trained PIO, virtually all have at least one staff member who regularly answers media inquiries or wears the PIO hat. That spokesperson must have full access to top city decision-makers during the crisis — even meetings where they usually would be excluded — so they can understand the nuances of the crisis, offer media relations advice and be fully informed when they conduct interviews or prepare statements. This is the time to break down the usual reporting relationships and organizational barriers and move into full crisis-management mode.

Get your information into the mix. Reporters gather information from num-erous places, with bloggers and other sometimes wildly inaccurate online sources adding immediate and abundant new fuel to the fire. The “good old days” when an agency could attempt to control information are long gone. Progressive city officials realize that plenty of internal and external fountains of knowledge are eager to share everything they know about the issue. Make sure that your information is always in the mix by responding in a timely fashion through the media and the city’s own communication vehicles.

Assume a crisis is around the corner. Stuff happens, and at some point it will happen to your city. It might be tomorrow or next month, but you’ll inevitably find yourself knee-deep in a situation that will turn your city upside down. A crisis communications plan offers the logical first step in preparation, but ongoing training and updating are essential to the plan’s success. Uncomfortable as it may be, assessing your city’s vulnerabilities (for staff and elected/appointed officials) and drilling a simulated difficult situation with all potentially involved staff provides the best way to test your readiness.

You need the media to tell your story. We all have war stories about perceived unfair treatment by the press, but clamping down on media access during a crisis is a guaranteed way to ensure that your side of the story never sees the light of day. A thoughtful, strategic response delivered consistently and professionally through numerous venues — including those that frequently oppose the city — ensures that your residents hear your messages. There is simply no other way to rebuild public confidence in the wake of a crisis.

Choose the right spokesperson. Throwing an inexperienced staff member in front of microphones and cameras without training and preparation produces a predictable damaging result. Anyone designated to represent the city through the media must thoroughly understand the unique elements of an interview, how to deliver messages and not just answer questions, and how to manage the onslaught of interview requests. You must also consider who will best connect with the public — the mayor, the city manager, a public safety chief or other spokesperson. 

Part 2 of this feature will appear in the September issue of Western City magazine.

This article appears in the August 2010 issue of Western City
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