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Media Training: When disaster strikes

  August 16, 2023

Natural disasters and manmade ones test the communication skills of even the very best PIO or any official who has the daunting job of addressing the media and the public.  

We've all watched the devasting news out of Maui these past days.  There are many questions yet to be answered and naturally Maui residents want those answers sooner rather than later.  And the media continue to press.  It is with all that in mind that these public representatives go before cameras.  In some cases the individuals have also been personally impacted by the tragedy.  No easy task then to do the job.  They need to stay on message and not break under the stress of the tragedy all around them.

Tough questions have been asked of the Governor, the FEMA administrator, law enforcement and fire department officials. Perhaps the sharpest questions are for Hawaiian Electric; many of those questions have to date not been answered.

In any disaster, information is evolving.  What may have been the correct answer in the first news conference may prove wrong later on.  It's important for public speakers to acknowledge that and keep the public updated on a regular basis.  

The public rightfully expects quick briefings on manmade disasters as well; everything from a plane crash to a major oíl spill to an act of terrorism.  They need to know if they are safe, if they need to evacuate, how to locate loved ones and other life-impacting information. If you are a PIO, government official, police or fire chief or corporate CEO it likely will fall to you to answer those questions.  Those experienced in crisis communications will already know the basics:

  • Don't speculate
  • Keep it simple
  • Update often 
  • Correct or clarify as more facts become available
  • You may be hurting, but this is not about you
  • Ask for the public's cooperation/help when appropriate
  • Have a backup news briefer
  • Social media is just as important as traditional media 
  • Journalists have an important job to do as well to serve the public
  • You can't fake empathy.  You either have it or you don't.  Being a professional does not mean you are a robot just rolling off facts and stats.

Crisis communications takes on many forms, but the bottom line is it should never be taken lightly.  


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