Crisis Preparedness Tips For Public Officials

January 28, 2013 at 1:17 PM

The mind-numbing tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School  and other school shootings have educators and public officials everywhere wondering if the next crisis will involve them. As someone in charge of communications during a highly charged period in Houston METRO's recent past, I was asked earlier this month to share my thoughts on crisis preparedness with members of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.

Public officials work in glass houses and are more prone than their private sector neighbors to intense media scrutiny because of the open records laws requiring virtually full disclosure. It's no coincidence that local news coverage, especially investigative reporting, is skewed toward public entities like school districts, police departments and transit agencies because, in part, it is far easier for journalists and bloggers to get information from them than private companies.

The main message I delivered to the roughly 50 public finance officers and staff was this: hoping to avoid a crisis is not a winning strategy for doing what's necessary to prepare for one.

From local government officials to leaders of America's largest manufacturers, crisis preparedness entails an understanding of several federal government frameworks, including the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS). Perhaps the single biggest benefit of these systems is that they enable a common set of response procedures and the ability to scale up a large response effort for maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

Another key element of crisis preparedness is assessing your operations to identify and fix high priority vulnerabilities. Contaminated drinking water supplies, a flu pandemic, the loss of a municipality's primary administration building or a prolonged computer system outage are all examples of events that can be evaluated and addressed in advance to minimize the likelihood of occurrence.

Among current crises unfolding this month, I cited Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, which experienced a series of problems that escalated from what commentators were calling teething problems to a full blown crisis, all in the space of several days. After repeated battery problems and a tarmac fuel spill, Boeing's leadership no doubt considered the possibility of governmental intervention and the grounding of their new planes. If they had, why not have Boeing's CEO be first to initiate a stand down on the 787 until the problems were rectified and further risks abated?  Sometimes a company must take dramatic action to limit further public relations damage and restore customer and investor confidence.

I also urged the public officials to incorporate social media into their crisis response planning.  In fact, the day is practically here when the lack of social media tools during a crisis will be prima facie evidence of an inadequate response effort.

Finally, I suggested several specific communication tools. The first is crisis software called PIER (Public Information Emergency Response), which has already been widely deployed throughout the greater Houston area thanks to the Department of Homeland Security and its Urban Area Security Initiative grants. More than 50 PIER licenses have been secured thus far, from Montgomery County to Galveston and all points in between.

Gerald Baron, who created PIER, has developed a new tool for assessing and benchmarking an organization's crisis communication plan. The Agincourt Gap Analysis Tool is designed to determine if the plans, training and preparations that have been developed for a crisis will, in fact, work successfully to protect an organization's reputation and brands. I believe Gerald is one of America's foremost crisis communication experts and I'm pleased to be part of his team deploying this new tool.

Closing note to Houston area readers: A Mass Fatality Management Symposium is scheduled for March 4-5 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, hosted by offices of Houston, Harris County and the Houston Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Initiative. For information, contact


Tags: crisis communication crisis NIMS ICS preparedness