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March 31, 2011
Communication Planning, Staffing Key to Crisis Management
 
The continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has brought to the fore again risk and crisis communication as public relations disciplines. Harvard's David Ropeik argues in a lengthy post on the Psychology Today blog that, hazardous and unfair as it may be to judge from a distance, the communication aspects of the nuclear disaster got off to a rough start. Earthquakes aside, that's the way it's apt to be if risk and crisis communication aren't treated, before an emergency occurs, as systematic disciplines in themselves. 

This writer was the communication manager at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant after the 1979 accident at TMI's Unit 2. I arrived eight or months after the March 28, 1979 accident and was part of a team that applied the communications lessons of the accident. The primary one was to have an emergency communication plan that's adequately staffed and practiced beforehand to do just one thing well – get timely, understandable, believable information to the news media and the public as promptly and continuously as possible. Coordination is another important aim, but whether or not other pertinent agencies are on hand, it's up to the "owner" of the situation to be as forthcoming as possible.

That really can't be done without communicators being an on-the-scene, continuing part of the response effort. The technical people are too preoccupied with attempting to manage the situation to provide news releases as well. Communications duty people need to be rostered on rotating availability at sensitive installations. That should be considered part of their jobs.

As Ropeik notes, "it is impossible and unfair to criticize specifics" in Japan from a distance. But he thinks that "not nearly enough attention has been given to the importance of risk communication as a key part of managing the overall risk from these (Fukushima) events. And that bears squarely on the health and safety of the public. Risk management in a crisis has to include not just the threat itself but also how people perceive and respond to the threat."

Toward the end of his post, Ropeik writes that "There are many reasons for poor risk communication: Arrogance and institutional self-protection and engineering/scientific hubris on the part of the company, the tendency by risk managers to avoid being honest with people about scary news for fear that it will make people afraid (which is a common but thoughtless mistake, since people are already afraid and the lack of openness and the mistrust it produces make things FAR worse), and a combative/defensive relationship with an aggressive, alarmist news media.

"But the biggest mistake is an obvious failure to recognize that risk communication is a vital part of overall risk management. Far too little respect has been paid to the risk caused by the way people perceive and respond to risk..."

That's apt to be true. And the way to get ahead of the communication curve is for the management of sensitive facilities  – they include far more than nuclear plants – to take risk communication seriously, to recognize it as a discipline in itself, to have crisis communication staff and plans at hand at their facilities and to keep them well-practiced in regular emergency drills. Always, the aim is not to protect the "owner" of the crisis but to inform the public in everyone's best interests. 

If risk communication isn't yet part of your PR plan, consider earnestly whether it should be, and take it very seriously. 

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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