Crisis Communication and Your Chamber’s Role by Elizabeth Kerns, MA, IOM
The role a chamber plays during a crisis varies from community to community. A chamber can vary in size from 30 members up to thousands, may have paid staff or non-paid volunteer leaders, the board’s commitment to volunteer varies from each chamber, as well as the staff size. Every chamber is very unique and has differing relationships with all of their stakeholders. This template is not the final answer but again serves as a beginning point to start a discussion within the organization and a community as a whole.
Defining your audience and stakeholders in your chamber are key. Stakeholder Groups in your chamber will likely include:
- Board members
- Committee/division leaders
- Media (Television, Radio, Newspaper, other city wide media including web sites)
- General council/legal representation
- Public Relations/Advertising firm representing your chamber
- Community leaders (non-government)
- City government officials
- County government officials
- State government officials
- Federal government officials
- State Chamber of Commerce
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce
- State Executive Association
- National Executive Association
- Sister organizations (i.e., Tourism Bureau, Main Street Organization, Economic Development Council, Ethnic Chamber, Young Professionals Network)
- Partnering organizations (i.e., American Red Cross, United Way, etc)
- Universities and colleges
- Neighbors (to your building)
- Neighboring Chambers to your community
- Community members at large
- Other unique members of your community
A stakeholder can be defined as a person, target market, or unique segmentation of the public who has an interest in an organization, or in this case, a community. For the chamber industry, a stakeholder may include internal or external audiences. Internal audience examples may include staff, board members, or members while the external audience would include unique segmentations including a local university, media, school districts, government professionals, state chamber and executive associations.
While all stakeholders in your chamber will not be contacted for every crisis, it is important to have a list of each, so that in a time of crisis, you are not scrambling to locate their contact information. You also need to consider multiple ways to contact any given group. During a crisis main lines of communication may not be available and alternative forms many need to be utilized. These contacts should be updated at a minimum once a year. Dedicate one staff member to collecting and updating this information annually. Use the worksheet below in the samples for each specific audience (contact worksheet). For employees, also include a copy of your organizational chart.
Crisis Communication Directory
In the time of a crisis, having a full and accurate directory is crucial. Identify one staff person or board member to maintain the crisis communication directory with updated phone numbers, cell phones, home phone numbers, titles, company names, point person, addresses, web sites, e-mail addresses, fax numbers, etc. For employees and board members, it is important to have emergency contacts for each person. Asking any staff member or board member to fill out an emergency contact form when they are hired or are seated on the board is easy. Ask them to update it annually.
Crisis Control Center
Should a crisis paralyze your chamber and/or your main offices are unavailable, identify two locations as secondary crisis control centers. During Hurricane Katrina, many chamber offices were destroyed and some chambers could relocate to another location in their community while others had to move miles away. Sample worksheet below.
Dealing with the Media
- Media Inquiries: In the event that your chamber is in the middle of a media frenzy, it is important to remain calm, keep control of your message, and always follow up on questions that are asked. When writing messages during a crisis, there are several key tactics to follow.
- Focus on the people. Make it clear that people, both internally and externally, who have been or might be affected are the first and foremost of concern to your chamber. Be human and sympathetic with death, injury or other loss. Put public safety first. Any living creatures and the environment are the second most important matter for communication. Minimizing losses of any kind must be a major message, as well as the how and why become key as the who, what, when, and where.
- Tell how the crisis situation is being remedied.
- Ensure that the messages show the chamber is doing everything possible with minimal delay.Be open and take criticism early if the organization is at fault. Never lie, speculate or withhold information unnecessarily. Respond to media queries in a timely way and provide complete answers.. Maintain accurate records of all that happens in the PR area of responsibility.
Media Log: When the media does call, it is important to log their calls. A sample call log worksheet is provided below in sample documents
Rules for Dealing with the Media
- For the spokesperson for your chamber, it is important to remember a number of key tips.
- Demonstrate chamber’s concern about people.
- Explain what is being done to remedy the situation.
- Keep the message consistent with all stakeholders. Never tell one stakeholder anything that is not being told to the media.
- Be open, honest, and tell the full story. If you do not, someone else will, thus increasing the possibility that the crisis team loses control of the situation.
- Never respond with no comment, but instead explain why you cannot answer the question. (i.e., we do not have those details confirmed at this time. We will provide you with an update when we do have an answer to that question.)
- Do not guess or speculate. If you do not know the answer, say so and offer to track down the answer.
- Respect reporter deadlines. If you promise to get information, do so promptly.
- Never speak off the record. The media can use any information released.
- Never give exclusive interviews during a crisis. All members of the media should have the chance for gathering information.
- If an injury or death has occurred, do not release the name(s) of the injured/deceased until all next of kin (immediate family) have been notified.
- Do not provide damage estimate, discuss responsibility for the incident, or discuss legal liability in any way.
- Be available 24 hours a day.
- Do not discuss illegal activity at any time. If it is assumed, say “Police are investigating. We are cooperating. Refer all questions to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
- In cases when media request interviews with family members, provide a liaison to family members for the media so that the family can protect their privacy if they choose.
- Avoid side comments meant to be humorous. Do NOT accept hypothetical questions. Do NOT repeat negative statements in a question. Taken out of context, these remarks can be very damaging.
- Use everyday language, not jargon, when talking to reporters.
- Provide written materials that give reporters background information.