Commentary By Steve Effros CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS During the past few weeks we’ve been hearing a lot of different forms of "crisis communications." Some are important to learn how to do, others should be avoided. The concept of "crisis communications" in the public affairs/public relations community has been around for years. It’s something we used to have a group of people teach in the cable industry. It related to what you should do when something major goes wrong. There are all sorts of actions that should, and should not be taken. There are plans that should be developed, pre-established chains of command that need to be set up, clear assignments, etc. This, of course, is known as "crisis management." During the Katrina disaster, we certainly saw how it should not be done. Most corporations have crisis management and communications teams ready if something goes seriously wrong, from someone maliciously tampering with the Tylenol to a hurricane wiping out the town where the cable system once stood. For reasons unknown, it seems the federal government, even with an agency specifically assigned to handle these sorts of things, did not have either management or communications teams set up with pre-established assignments, responsibilities, etc., when the crisis hit. Astounding. We will be hearing a lot of second-guessing, but clearly there were failures all the way down the line. Of course at the local, and to some extent state, level in the Katrina disaster there was another kind of crisis in communications. Those responsible for trying to get things done lost most of their ability to communicate…. except through the media, and that communication could only get to the outside world, not the folks in the middle of the crisis. Unfortunately, some federal officials weren’t heeding the media, so they missed what everyone else was seeing, and they therefore failed to respond. The FCC is correct in quickly looking into the question of what the best combination of communication might be (broadcast, satellite, etc.) that would be the most robust in times of disasters. Clearly it need not be video, but satellite phones, grid-enabled computer networks, wireless connections that don’t need much electricity and the like are worth exploring. Cell phones, also, are important, although the vulnerability of the towers and other antenna sites, and long-term powering needs make them less robust. What is absolutely clear is that all forms of communication are vital in a crisis, and who and how they are used, likewise, should be thought out ahead of time. The last thing anyone should do is limit forms of communications at times like that. Which brings me back to the FCC, which has once again delayed the poorly thought-out requirement that VoIP phone customers be cut off from their service if they do not affirmatively warrant that they understand the limitations of e911. Getting the word out on the limitations is a good idea. Using a manufactured cut-off "crisis" to get that word out is not. I suspect there are some at the FCC who consider what they did a major success because there was so much "ink" about the issue. But that’s a lousy form of "crisis communications." Do it too much, and like the little boy with his finger in the dike (or levee), nobody listens anymore. Yes, it worked this time, but the communicator lost lots of credibility and respect in the process. There are better ways. The government, like private industry, should learn them.

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