February 26, 2020

Communication Key to Leading Through Crisis

By Patricia Vernon

Crisis communications is a discipline within public relations that must be planned for, practiced and carefully implemented to ensure accurate and clear information is being communicated internally and externally. While these events are often on a smaller scale for a business or organization, other larger agencies and entities must also employ these same crisis communications best practices for public safety.

In January, the Florida Public Relations Association (FPRA) Gainesville Chapter hosted a panel discussion on Richard Spencer’s controversial speaking engagement in October 2017 on the University of Florida campus. Panelists shared their professional public relations and communications experiences while working together and with other community groups to help maintain peace in the Gainesville community.

Spencer led white nationalists and white supremacists in a march across the University of Virginia campus in August 2017 touching off a weekend of deadly clashes which resulted in Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declaring a state of emergency. In October 2017, Spencer led protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in the days that followed, several public universities denied Spencer a platform to speak. The University of Florida reluctantly agreed to allow Spencer to speak on campus citing that as a state institution, it must allow for the free expression of all viewpoints. Several days before the scheduled appearance, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in light of the events on the University of Virginia campus and in Charlottesville.

Gainesville Police Department Officer Ben Tobias opened his statements on the FPRA Gainesville panel by saying, “We weren’t sure what the day would hold.” In light of that sentiment which was held across Gainesville as the day approached for Spencer’s speech, law enforcement, the University of Florida, elected officials, community groups and governmental agencies successfully collaborated with one another to create an environment of peace in the community. Officer Tobias was joined by University of Florida (UF) Director of Communications Margot Winick and Melissa Lutz Blouin of UF Health Communications for the FPRA Gainesville Chapter panel discussion.  

Even prior to Spencer’s speaking date being solidified, all three of the panelists were preparing and reaching out to gain an understanding of best practices from colleagues who had similar experiences in other geographic areas. While UF Student Affairs reached out to their peers at the University of Virginia, the Gainesville Police Department reached out to other law enforcement agencies including Charlottesville. As the day approached, over 300 media credentials were issued which included a total of 70 credentials just for CNN. These same communications professionals were also just wrapping up Hurricane Irma responses as the day of the Spencer event approached.

UF communications professionals gathered information from the University of California and the University of Virginia to put a plan in place for UF. “I just want to give a shout out to all communications teams at UF coming together on what we needed to say and communicating to their unique audiences,” said Blouin. Planning and messaging had to be communicated across a variety of departments, to students, parents and staff, as well as to patients and staff at UF Health locations.

Officer Tobias coordinated efforts across a broad number of law enforcement agencies which also had to collaborate, plan and act in concert with one another. “We brought in all the alphabet soup of law enforcement – city, county, city, state and federal.” The National Guard was also activated during planning and the collaboration of efforts on that day.  

Panelists noted that having one voice on social media for all of the agencies and organizations involved as well as having at least one meeting under one roof were both best practices which made for a successful collaboration. They also agreed that having more meetings for all involved would be something to implement if they were faced with another similar event.

All through the year, these three panelists practice crisis communications drills which also contributed to the successful collaboration among one another.

Positive messaging on social media from UF President W. Kent Fuchs reminding students and community members that UF stands for tolerance and diversity was noted as a large contributing factor to successful external communications. During the event, UF also established a website so that everyone could find updated and official information in a centralized place.

Whether it is on a large scale or for your business, crisis communications has several best practices which include reaching out to others who have faced similar circumstances to learn from those scenarios, working collaboratively with other agencies or community groups who may also be involved in the incident, establishing one voice on social media, and creating a channel through a dedicated website where accurate and up-to-date information can be available.

Remember, create a crisis communications plan on a sunny day and practice implementing it. Then you and you staff will be well prepared if and when a crisis occurs.

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