Crisis-Management Lessons from Philadelphia

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It’s easy to observe a situation and play Monday-morning quarterback. We all do it, whether watching a football game or evaluating an organization’s response to a public crisis. When I led communications efforts for former Gov. Tom Wolf, my least favorite genre of story was “Experts grade and critique response/plan/administrative action.”

For everything the public sees, there are 15 terrible decisions or worse alternatives that an organization, especially a government leader, has to navigate. Often there are only bad options, and you must do your best to mitigate the damage and communicate to the public. I say this not to let our elected leaders off the hook but to provide context for their actions during crises.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and his administration were recently criticized for their handling of a chemical spill that threatened the city’s water supply. There was no shortage of critiques of everything from the mayor’s public presence to his wording and messaging.

Instead of relitigating that response, I want to share some perspective on how organizations plan for a crisis, how a crisis can unfold, and the process of responding from a public relations perspective.

When a crisis strikes, an organization should have an internal notification process. Government entities like the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and others have applications and software to notify them about emergencies in their jurisdiction and help them monitor developments.

Here is where the first problem can occur. Without planning, training, and proper procedures in place, the operational response of emergency practitioners, first responders, and administrators can get ahead of the public response.  

This is where frequent planning exercises can help. In the Wolf administration, we participated in emergency-management training that brought together all pieces of the response. Along with training, crisis communications plans should be in place. These plans, especially the goals that dictate a return to normal business, serve as a north star to any response. Ideally, organizations would anticipate crises and have plans in place, but sometimes plans must be created on the fly.

As the initial response unfolds, an organization needs to maintain a knowledge center of verified facts, a timeline, and other information to serve as a definitive guide for the response and public outreach. The crisis communications plan should have a written approval process for verification, and there should be a careful vetting of information to ensure clear information is released to the public.

It’s also important for the government to take control of the public response when a public good or public safety is at risk and not rely on a private company to lead the communications. In Philadelphia, the initial chemical release should have triggered an internal notification, a command-center mobilization, and crisis-communications plan activation. Instead, more than 26 hours passed after the initial spill before the public was notified of the danger to the water supply. And the first public notification sent many into a panic.  

There was a void in public response on key channels. Some of the most effective communicators were on TikTok. Still, the city’s water-supply crisis response was focused on TV, newspapers, or Facebook. With frequent planning and training, practitioners can find channel voids or inefficiencies and improve their crisis plans accordingly.

Once a crisis is made public, it’s important to provide regular, iterative updates to the public. Even if there is repetition in the information, you need to provide comprehensive updates at specific intervals. In my experience with Gov. Wolf, during snowstorms that disrupted travel, we would work with PennDOT and PEMA to provide statements or press conferences every two to six hours, depending on the severity.

To Philadelphia’s credit, the city provided public updates in reasonable intervals after the initial notification. It’s up to the communications leaders to set these updates and drive the operations team to provide updated, verified information. As the organization provides updates, it's important to monitor the goals of the communications plan to measure progress.

Crisis communicators also need to make sure they have a comprehensive channel strategy. Some crises are “black swan” events, and a failure of imagination can hinder the response. As the commonwealth responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, our channel strategy was frequently stressed by bandwidth failures on our video channels. The number of people viewing was an extreme multiple of our regular audience, and we struggled to adapt in the first few days.

Planning, training, and careful execution can make a crisis response easier for practitioners and more useful for the public. With the number of variables during any single event, it can be difficult to evaluate any organization’s response. Still, it’s important to understand some best practices of crisis and emergency management. Most importantly, government entities and organizations must have a planning, training, and review regimen in place so that when a crisis hits, they are best prepared to serve the public.

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