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Government Shutdown—A Pain or A Crisis?

Government shutdown. It isn’t a natural disaster, but it surely could be considered a crisis. As a communications consultant I’ve heard stories from counterparts across the agencies talk about their approaches in dealing with the possible government shutdown. With each discussion the same question comes up, “How do you prepare for a specific event when you don’t know the details beforehand?”

The better question I would ask is, “How does prior planning help you respond to the unexpected?” You can develop a framework that helps you tackle many different types of crises. Luckily, when one of my clients approached my team about how to handle the pending government shutdown, my team took a targeted approach—work with the crisis communications plan we already have in place and tailor it.

Months ago before I even joined the team—lucky for me—they had developed a crisis communications plan to help our client answer questions that shed light on how to manage their communications shop in a time of crisis. Here are some examples:

  • What is deemed a crisis in the first place?
  • How do we approach addressing a crisis once it is identified?
  • How do we reprioritize roles to ensure we are covering the most important tasks?
  • What have we learned from previous experiences and what will we do and not do again in the future?

This approach helped us avoid having to develop a “Government Shutdown” communications plan. Because we already developed an approach, we simply had to look at what we already had and say, “Okay, how does this plan need to address the nuances of this specific situation?”

As the team’s social media specialist, I did the same thing everyone else did—I identified my approach from the crisis communications plan, reprioritized my role, identified the most important tasks, and when this is all said and done, I’ll bring back what I learned from this experience to strengthen our crisis communications plan.

Something I already learned is how to incorporate social media best practices in a time of crisis. I knew it was important for me to ensure that my client didn’t lose the hard work that had been done to foster an online community. On top of it, we just launched our social media capabilities on Facebook and Twitter just a few weeks ago. I realized, like many of you, that I had to advise my client to remain transparent and not hide anything from our social media community. As part of my recommendation, I offered these main approaches:

  • Manage expectations to let your audience know that engagement from the organization will be limited; and feel free to communicate accurately and as often as necessary
  • Point out where to get immediate help; if you deal with an organization that provides critical services to individuals, they need a place to go in case of an emergency
  • Notify the organizations you are referring your audience to that you are doing just that; I call this the “Hey watch out, here they come” tactic
  • Don’t forget about your other communication outlets; e-mail and phone are still heavily used and you need to address how you will manage expectations via these capabilities

So what can you take away from this? Don’t forget to use what you already have. You probably don’t need to start from scratch. When things are back to “normal,” make sure that the creation of a crisis communications plan is on the top of your to-do list. It will save you time in the future and will help you be more effective when a crisis hits.

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AJ Dronkers

Great post! Glad the shutdown didn’t happen yet. I really like your points of having a crisis plan already in place that can be adapted to specific incidents.