Crisis Communications for Government in the Digital Age

Whether it is a terrorist attack, political corruption, cybersecurity breach or natural disaster, the government is no stranger to crises and the critical communications they require. Federal and local government organizations are held to an even higher standard of ethics and transparency, given their mission and citizen-driven purpose.

Despite the abundance of valuable guidelines for crisis communications, even the best public relations pros often come up short. Crisis situations are highly emotional, evolve quickly, and are loaded with unpredictability.

The pieces rarely fall into place as they did in Tylenol's well-executed response that many communications professionals studied closely in college. In the famed 1982 case, Johnson & Johnson acted immediately with full transparency to alert customers across the nation when it was discovered that some Tylenol bottles had been tampered with and poisoned. As a result of the company’s ethical integrity, open communications, and determination to put public safety first, Johnson & Johnson gained more credibility and trust with their customers than they enjoyed before.

The digital age and ever-growing utility of social media have introduced a modern-day newsroom that operates in a minute-to-minute environment, where it’s often more important to be first than it is to be accurate.  Had Johnson & Johnson experienced this crisis today, the company would have likely experienced significantly more problems. The news would have traveled much faster and the traditionally PR-shy company would likely not have been able to prepare a response ahead of public discovery. Social media videos of tampered Tylenol bottles would have gone viral, rumors would have spread and it would have been much harder for Johnson & Johnson to make a comeback.

Social Media and the Rise of Unqualified Thought Leaders

The modern communications environment leaves public relations professionals in a much more precarious position when a crisis breaks. One of the biggest game-changers has been the introduction of citizen journalism. Unlike the ethics that guide traditional journalism, social media is often driven by what gets the most attention — whether it’s true or not.

Looking through the lens of crisis communications, it’s important to note that social media platforms tend to be extremely self-righteous and haughty environments. This type of banter can throw even the best communications practitioners off kilter, but it is important to understand the context and act accordingly. This is largely driven by who the naysayers are and their degree of influence, whether there is truth behind their message, and whether a groundswell is building.

Michigan Governor Drinks Flint Water

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is one of the best examples of poorly executed crisis communications in recent history. Government leaders withheld information on the water toxicity for nearly five months before making it public, and even then did not disclose the full extent of urgency and danger. Deception — particularly when it comes to public health — is the fastest route to permanently ruining credibility.

While the traditional press would certainly have covered this issue extensively prior to the digital age, citizen journalism and the availability of social media served to escalate this crisis exponentially. Governor Rick Snyder, in attempt to assure the public that the water situation was improving, drank filtered water with local residents and posted on Twitter that he would do so for the next 30 days. This effort was not perceived favorably by citizens, with many calling for his imprisonment or resignation. Those responses were among the tamest — others included demands to see his grandchildren drink the water, pictures of bathtubs filled with corroded water, and much more.

Authenticity Rules

Today’s world of communications offers instant access and limitless avenues for expressing oneself as an average citizen.  Honesty, ethics, compassion and open communications have never been more important, particularly for government organizations whose sole mission is to serve the interests of citizens.