Crisis response in the U.S. – where acting locally makes common sense

“Think globally, act locally.” …sometimes clichés help to illustrate important points.
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By Sam Sacco

“Think globally, act locally.” Yes, it’s an old cliché. But sometimes clichés help to illustrate important points. And in the case of crisis communications, this adage does just that.

From a global standpoint, we know that when a maritime incident rises to the level of “crisis” there are certain communications strategies we must initiate:

  •           Mobilise an experienced media information officer to lead the external communications effort.
  •           Fill the information void as quickly as possible by sharing with media the incident facts, response activities, and by addressing potential community concerns.
  •           Be timely and proactive so that the company positions itself as the most credible source of information about the response with media and other key stakeholders.

This “strategy” pretty much applies worldwide. But how we execute it… ah-ha! Now we’re acting locally.

As part of the Navigate Response network, my firm represents the U.S. We know how to operate in that theatre. However, if your company were to experience some type of mishap in Turkey, we would not be the ones you call. If something were to happen in Singapore or off the coast of Australia, or in Brazil – again – you would want to call the local experts there.

But in the U.S., we know how to make the “global” strategy a local reality. And the same can be said by all the other Navigate Response network affiliates located throughout the world. From France to New Zealand and from Hong Kong to Greece, Navigate affiliates in each of their respective locations think globally but act locally – and that is why it works for our clients.

The U.S. Approach

Like any maritime incident no matter where it occurs, a successful U.S. crisis communications response requires regulatory understanding and awareness, knowledge of local issues and sensitivities, and experience. This is especially true when it comes to working and coordinating with both Federal and State government agencies.

The U.S. uses a “Unified Command” system to respond to maritime incidents. Translated that means the lead Federal agency (in this case, the United States Coast Guard), the lead State agency (usually the agency charged with environmental protection in the state where the incident occurred), and the company involved in the incident all work together on the response.

Jointly, they establish an Incident Command Post. It is a fully coordinated team effort – with the caveat that the U.S. Coast Guard always holds a “51 per cent” share should it need to exert its authority.

How does this coordinated approach affect communications with media?

The company’s public information officer (and other media representatives) become part of the unified response. A Joint Information Center – known as the JIC – is established. The JIC is comprised of media and public affairs specialists, not just from the company, but from the U. S. Coast Guard and participating state and local government agencies, as well.

Just like the Unified Command that oversees the entire response, the JIC’s company and government agency professionals work together. Their mission: get vetted and timely information about the response out to the world and be the “eyes and ears” for the Command on potential breaking stakeholder impact issues.

The “strategy” highlighted earlier is fully executed by this collaborative team.

The results of this collaboration: confusing cross-messaging by competing organisations is averted; inconsistent or conflicting fact-sharing is avoided; and, only confirmed, factual information – approved by Unified Command – is shared with media and the outside world.

Equally important, since the information is coming from the Unified Command (which includes reputable federal and state agencies), it is received by media, elected officials, and other key stakeholders as more credible and trustworthy. As a side benefit, the company is recognised as part of the team solving the problem – rather than operating separately and being blamed for causing the incident. Cooperation becomes a key messaging theme.

This system also enables company representatives in the JIC to educate agency counterparts about the company’s response capabilities, reinforcing its commitment to the cause. As a result, when questions emerge about the company’s conduct, members of the JIC are better prepared to address these issues in a proper and more favorable context. It’s a good system for the U.S. and for companies that operate in U.S. waters.

But the fact remains. What works in the U.S. is not what works best in other locations. That’s why it’s important to have the experience, knowledge, and discipline of a worldwide network of communications professionals that can help wherever your ships may call.

When it comes to crisis communications, thinking globally – and acting locally – just makes plain old common sense.

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