Micerc a guide for Developing Crisis Communication Plans Office of Public Health Preparedness

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Questionnaire for Organizations or Individuals Serving Special Populations

Date: ________________________________

Respondent and Title: ____________________________________________________

Organization: ____________________________________________________________

Contact Information: ______________________________________________________

Target Group: ______________________________________________

  1. Do you have any data about the prevalence of this group in Michigan, your county or town?

  2. What agencies serve this population?

  3. What is the best way to reach the members of this group during a public health emergency?

  4. What is the best way to present the information so it can be understood and directions can be followed?

  5. Who is the best spokesperson?

  6. Will members of this group need assistance in following directions? Who is best able to provide this assistance?

  7. What other thoughts do you have about communicating with members of this group during a public health emergency?

  8. Are there other people who you think would be helpful to me?

Focus Group Guidelines

Target Group_______________________



  1. Explain the purpose of the focus group: The __________ Health Department wants to know the best way to contact you in case of an emergency, terrorism attack or industrial chemical accident.

  2. Have each participant give their name and some background information depending on the group (e.g., how long in this country, church affiliation, etc.).

  3. Ask: What is the best way to contact you in case of an emergency?

  4. Who do you trust the most to give you information? Who would you trust if she/he came to your door to give you information?

  5. Would you contact someone to confirm the information you received? Whom?

  6. Who do you think would not give you truthful information?

  7. How do you like written information to be presented to you?

  8. If you had to go to another location in an emergency, where would you want to go?

Section Three

Guidelines For Working With the Media

Guidelines For Working With the Media

During a crisis or emergency, the media are valuable partners helping to ensure that accurate messages are communicated to the public. While the media are sometimes aggressive and often competitive, they are generally very cooperative during a crisis, especially during the initial stage of a crisis. In general, the goal of the media during a crisis is to get accurate information to the public as soon as possible. Because the media often work on specific deadlines, they often appear unwilling to wait for information about a story. In general, if they cannot get information from one source in time to meet a deadline, they will turn to other sources. In other words, during a crisis, you may be forced to talk to the media before you have all the facts. The alternative is to have other, less knowledgeable sources provide information to the public. These instant experts generally increase the confusion during a crisis. As a crisis progresses to the “maintenance” stage the media may be less a partner and will step back and become more critical. The degree to which this will occur will vary with each media outlet. Rather than take offense, just accept the fact, that this is the media doing its job. It is important to recognize that while the media can play a supportive role, journalism has different objectives and goals than the healthcare community.

Michigan Media

Michigan, particularly Southeast Michigan, is considered a major media market. This means that news of events in Michigan are often picked up by the national media. In addition, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are both parts of larger newspaper chains. The major broadcast television networks all have local news facilities that will cover major events. Public Radio is also very well represented in

Michigan with local affiliates positioned around the state, often associated with colleges and universities. Contact information for Michigan’s daily newspapers and broadcasters can be found in the appendix. While this is a valuable resource be sure to remember to update the list regularly. Media contact lists require vigilance. One way to check its accuracy is to randomly test the contact numbers and personnel. Remember, this information is often in a state of flux. The job of maintaining a list is, unfortunately, never complete.

Most news events, however, are local and even in the case of a major crisis or emergency the local media will be the first on the scene. As outlined below it is important to cultivate long-term relationships with local media so that during a crisis, you are interacting with a familiar person.

During a crisis or emergency, the most immediate news coverage is available from broadcast news; television and radio. Of these, radio is much more widely available and accessible even to those who are driving. Research consistently shows that most people get their news about a crisis or disaster from the radio or TV. Due to severe weather alerts most people have been conditioned to turn on the radio for crisis related information. While you must be very cautious not to offend newspaper reporters, make sure that you have accommodated the needs of broadcast outlets. Television, for example, needs pictures and visual images to be able to cover a story successfully. Radio reporters prefer to include interviews and will often take call-ins during a crisis from officials.

Many local radio stations, however, often do not have news reporters on staff and rely on other staff members to present the news. Newspapers, however, typically have trained journalists who are willing and able to cover stories in much greater detail. Television typically covers stories in very short formats (i.e., 2-3 minutes) and looks for visual appeal. Television and newspaper outlets often seek out subject matter experts to explain technical issues in credible and understandable ways.

Pre-event relationships: Pre-established relations with the media, especially the local media, are of paramount importance. As soon as possible, start building a solid relationship with the local media. Identify the reporters who are most likely to cover a public health crisis. Make sure you then identify the names of their editors and producers. The latter are the gatekeepers and building ongoing relationships with them is just as essential as relationships you cultivate and maintain with reporters. Spend time with these people and build a strong sense of trust and familiarity. Ask for an editorial meeting and establish mutual understandings.

Realistic expectations: Try to understand what you can realistically expect from the media. It is also important that you have a clear understanding of their constraints. Be sure to find out the specific deadlines for each and every media outlet with which you interact. Be fair and provide all the media with the facts at the same time. This means avoid playing favorites.

Disasters are local: While the national media may appear more glamorous and important do not ignore the regional and local media. Remember, “all disasters are local.”

The local media are dependent on you for information and you, in turn, are dependent on them for access to the local community. A number of studies have demonstrated that the local media is often more accurate and more committed to accuracy than the national media. Don’t be so overly taken by the buzz of the national media and its celebrities that you ignore the local media. The local media will get the story no matter what you do. It is important to be responsive to the needs of the local media.

Invite the local media to events where they can get to know the key players in your organization. Express what your needs and concerns are should a crisis occur. Be clear about what your stated goals and objectives will be. Provide the media with essential public health information about potential public health emergencies. Additionally, provide them with authoritative sources of information and fact sheets. Educate them about what the key public health issues are and provide them with a meaningful role in a crisis.

Many local health departments and first responder groups invite journalists to their exercises and drills. Doing so can help significantly improve the effectiveness of coverage during a real event, and is an effective way to educate the public about what you are doing to prepare for a crisis. The public will be much more responsive during an event if they know you are prepared and they know what to expect.

News Releases

News releases are an important way to communicate with the media. While you may be experienced in writing news releases, during a crisis situation it is important for you to use a checklist to ensure you have successfully completed a task. While in general, it is always a good idea to use a checklist it is especially important while responding to a crisis because of the numbness, mental confusion, and fatigue that can occur in such situations. See Appendix A for sample press releases.

News release checklist:

  • Is the lead direct and to the point? Does it contain the three most important messages?

  • Has the local angle been emphasized?

  • Have you expressed empathy?

  • Does the release demonstrate competence and expertise?

  • Is the release honest?

  • Have you acknowledged people’s fears and uncertainty?

  • Have you explained the steps you are taking to find answers and address the problem?

  • Have you given the public a meaningful thing that they can do?

  • Is the message consistent internally and with other released messages?

  • Are your sentences short and concise?

  • In a press release it is OK to have a one-sentence paragraph.

  • Write sentences of twenty words or less.

  • In an emergency give a twenty-four hour contact number.

  • Has editorial content been placed in quotation marks and been properly attributed?

  • Are quotations written as if they were spoken?

  • Is spelling and punctuation correct including names and titles?

  • Have all statements of fact been double-checked for accuracy?

  • Has the release been properly prepared and double-spaced?

  • Is the release date displayed in a prominent place?

  • Is the release time indicated?

  • Are names and phone numbers for follow-up information included?

  • Is the released properly identified as “Embargoed” or “For Immediate Release”?

  • Does it have a one- line title?

  • Is it labeled correctly and assigned a number and logged in a notebook tracking all releases?

  • Does the press release conform to the accepted news style?

  • Press releases do not have strong concluding paragraphs.

  • Do a security check. Some information may be classified.

  • Have you cleared the release with the appropriate agency and scientific officials?

Media Statements:

Media statements are not press releases. Simply stated, they are not news, they merely provide the official perspective of your organization. They are much shorter than a press release, often just a few paragraphs. Traditionally, they are attributed to an organization official, very often the executive. First, they provide the opportunity for an official to be quoted and very often provide the organization with the opportunity to clarify or enrich information on a given topic. During a crisis they are an appropriate way to empathize, or sympathize, with victims and their families. Be sure to obtain all the necessary clearances. Media statements are an effective tool but not employed as often as a press release. See Appendix A for a sample media statement.


Sometime during or after a crisis, a public heath professional is called on to make a more extensive statement in the form of a speech. Town hall meetings, for example, are often used during or after a crisis to provide specific information to a community in an interactive format. In general, a speech will have many of the same features as other message forms. As with other kinds of messages it is important to examine the needs and characteristics of the audience. Also, it is important that a speech be carefully organized. In general, audiences can more easily follow the main points and arguments when they are ordered in a systematic way.

Speeches generally have three main points: an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

The introduction should get the audience’s attention, and outline the purpose or thesis of the speech and preview the arguments. The body of the speech presents the main ideas, arguments, and information. The conclusion of the speech summarizes the ideas and arguments.

A good rule in public speaking is to keep the speech short and simple. Stay with ideas and arguments you are comfortable with. Also, be sure to rehearse the speech and work for a relaxed and conversational delivery.

Guidelines for Spokespersons

A skilled and credible spokesperson is one of the most important resources for communicating effectively with a crisis. A spokesperson can help calm fears, create message consistency, improve compliance with medical advice, and bolster credibility.

Selection: A spokesperson should be selected carefully, considering the skill, personality and experiences of your staff. While a spokesperson should be a senior member of your organization, he or she need not necessarily be the director. Some people are simply better at speaking in stressful situations than are others. While many of the skills of being an effective spokesperson can be taught it is also important to recognize that some qualities of being a good spokesperson are innate. In other words, some people have a greater natural capacity for being s spokesperson than others.

Spokesperson activities: In general, news or press conferences are some of the most common forms of crisis communication. It is likely that in the advent of a serious crisis or emergency, a spokesperson will need to hold a news conference either alone or in conjunction with other emergency management personnel within the first few hours.

Additional conferences will be held as needed, often twice a day.

It is also important to remember that the media is not your enemy during a crisis. In general, journalists throughout Michigan are very well trained and professional. They will be helpful and professional during a crisis. Developing relationships with journalists before a crisis is very helpful not only during a crisis but also in disseminating more routine public health information.

Resources: Below are three resources for helping identify and train spokespersons. First is a spokesperson checklist. This will help you identify the person best positioned to serve this role. Second is a “Do’s and Don’ts” for dealing with the media. Finally there is a checklist for your spokesperson to use before speaking to the press.

Who should be the Spokesperson?

The public wants to hear from experts and familiar authority figures during a crisis. While it is difficult to know in advance who will be a successful crisis spokesperson, there are characteristics to look for. It is very important that the spokesperson has good communication skills and receives some spokesperson training. Keep in mind that the decision should be made in advance to avoid confusion during a crisis. Below are 15 desirable characteristics for a crisis spokesperson:

  1. Perceived as highly credible by the media and public

  2. Flexible and agile, while staying on message

  3. Possess excellent communication skills

  4. Possess relevant technical knowledge about the specific crisis, its dynamics, and how it is being managed

  5. Possess sufficient authority to be the accepted organizational spokesperson

  6. Able to express technical knowledge in ways that can be understood by the media and the average person

  7. Able to respond to sensitive questions and issues

  8. Willing to receive feedback

  9. Able to work well under pressure

  10. Able to control emotional responses

  11. Able to recognize limitations of authority as in when to speak and when to defer (can “check ego at the door")

  12. Able to reflect appropriate tone for audience and crisis needs

  13. Available during a crisis and accepting of media and public interest

  14. Free from other crisis management responsibilities

Ten Points for Dealing with the Media Following a Crisis:

These ten points are general guidelines for all crisis communicators including the spokespersons.

  1. Stay calm! People make mistakes and say the wrong thing when they are under stress.

  2. Express sympathy and concern for anyone harmed!

  3. Respond to questions immediately and as completely as possible! Do not respond with “No comment.” Avoidance only makes most reporters try harder to get the story and makes it appear that something is being hidden.

  4. Do not speculate, but never flatly refuse to give information. If you do now know, say so, but indicate that you will find out. Phrases like “We are compiling that information and will have it to you as soon as possible.” “We are checking those facts” or “It would be inappropriate for us to speculate at this time” may help buy some time.

  5. Never give an answer that you think will not stand up to close scrutiny. It will embarrass you and make things worse.

  6. Never try to falsify, slant or color your answers. Reporters are trained to spot such efforts and it will create distrust.

  7. Always get the reporter’s name, affiliation, and contact information.

  8. Have background information available on the nature of the problem. Fact sheets, statements, Q and A are very helpful. Many of these resources are available from the CDC Web site.

  9. Never argue with a reporter. Open, honest and immediate responses will reduce the duration of the crisis and associated media coverage.

Spokesperson Checklist:

This checklist will help a spokesperson prepare him or herself for making a press statement. During the initial stage of a crisis the press will be friendly and supportive. As the crisis develops questions of the assignment of blame and responsibility emerge and the press will become more critical (see the section on the stages of crisis).

1. What is your key message? Determine key messages based on what is currently known about the event. Be willing to repeat or bridge back to your key message. In general, keep the key message simple and limited to three points.

2. Express empathy and caring in the first lines or first 30 seconds of your statement.

3. Answer questions of: magnitude, immediacy, duration, and control/management of the emergency, such as:

  • Are my family and I safe?

  • What have you found that will affect my family and myself?

  • What can I do to protect my family and myself?

  • Who (what) caused this problem?

  • Can you fix it?

4. Keep questions limited by time or by number of questions. Phrases like “I have a few moments for questions” or “I can take a few questions” will help you limit the number of questions. Prepare to answer the following questions:

  • Who is in charge?

  • How are those who got hurt being helped?

  • Is this thing/threat/danger being contained?

  • What can we expect?

  • What should we do?

  • Why did this happen? (Don’t speculate. Repeat facts of the situation, describe

data collection effort, and describe treatment from fact sheets).

  • Did you have forewarning this might happen?

  • Why wasn’t this prevented from happening (again)?

  • What else can go wrong?

  • When did you begin working on this (e.g., were notified of this, determined this

had occurred)?

  • What does this data/information/terminology mean?

  • What bad things aren’t you telling us? (Don’t forget to tell them the good things.)

5. Is there an information sheet/ fact sheet/press release that can be distributed? Is it consistent with what will be said? Are there sufficient copies?

6. Have clearances for release of this information been assured? Line up your clearance personnel and give everyone the ground rules. If you are the main clearance officer, be sure that you are set up to get clearance from your higher authority if that is required.

7. When will more information be available? When will another press statement be made?

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