August 2002 // Volume 40 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT2

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Sound Internal Communication Is Crucial in a Crisis Situation

Before the events of September 11, 2001, a crisis had predictable elements. Now, the scope has vastly broadened. Top managers, including those in Extension, need to develop a well thought-out workplace crisis response plan, including where employees should go and what they should do. Managers need to communicate with their employees quickly and follow up with e-mails and small group meetings. Critical data must be backed up and secure. It is also important to convey accurate facts to the media, educate the media about how to cover your organization in the aftermath of a crisis, and monitor their accuracy.

Dave McAllister
Public Affairs Specialist
Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, DC
Internet Address:

Marci Hilt
Public Affairs Specialist
Office of Communications
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, DC
Internet Address:


Before September 11, 2001, "911" was only a phone number to most of us. Since then, it's come to symbolize an unforgettable day of terrorist attacks on the United States.

The events of 9/11 affected all of our workplaces--you no doubt remember where you were and what you were doing. Was your workplace a model of calmness and clarity of purpose in those first hours and days? For most of us, probably not.

Unlike other well-known days of infamy, like December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor Day), and November 22, 1963 (the assassination of President John F. Kennedy), the events of September 11, 2001, are--as we've been told by our government leaders--almost certain to recur.

What lessons have we learned from 9/11, and what will we do differently next time?

To address these questions, the DC Region of Agricultural Communicators in Education (ACE) put together a half-day workshop on the topic "Crisis Communications After 9/11: What About Next Time?" Nearly 50 government communicators gathered in Washington, DC, on June 12, 2002, for the workshop, co-sponsored by USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) and USDA's Office of Communications (OC).

Keynote Speaker

"Before 9/11, a crisis had some fairly predictable elements," said keynote speaker Donald Hannaford, Senior Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer, Manning Selvage & Lee public relations firm, Washington, DC. "The scope has vastly broadened--9/11 was astonishingly brutal. Nothing's unthinkable anymore. There are no longer any lines that won't be crossed."

The threat is no longer abstract, he said, but personal because of the anthrax scare last fall. People began to think: "This really could happen to me."

In times of crisis in an office environment, Hannaford said, there needs to be great emphasis on effective internal communications.

"Employees are anxious over their personal safety and their job security. Information is the key--you need to provide brief, accurate, and swift information to employees. They need to know what is happening and how it affects them personally."

Hannaford said top managers and supervisors need to communicate with their employees quickly and then follow up with e-mail and small group meetings. He called printed information the least effective way to communicate in a crisis because there is limited provision for feedback.

"You need to pre-empt the gossip network," he said, "and, if necessary, co-opt it."

A well thought-out workplace response plan, Hannaford said, can get people moving again during a crisis. Everyone needs to know who is in charge, how to evacuate their building, and how to keep in touch once they leave the building. Households, he said, should have a similar emergency response plan.

"Don't keep your plan a secret," he said. "Paralysis is the biggest enemy in a crisis. Develop clear lines of responsibility, and provide for multiple backups."

Hannaford recommended that offices have their critical data backed up and secure, and that employees know how to find out when and where to report to work if they can't get back into their offices.

Panel Discussion

A panel discussion followed, with Scott Hatch, Director, Office of Communications, U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM); Alisa Harrison, Press Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); Kevin Keane, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Mike Kortan, Chief of Media Relations, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Panel members all stressed the importance of having a crisis communications plan, getting accurate facts to the media, educating the media about how to cover your agency or institution during a time of crisis, and working to correct inaccuracies circulating within or about it.

After 9/11, OPM Director Kay Coles James ordered a complete revamp of how employees at OPM are evacuated, Scott Hatch said. Each OPM employee now has detailed instructions on how to evacuate the building on a lanyard with their photo ID, he said. The cards also tell where to meet to check in, so that all may be accounted for quickly.

"Our philosophy," he said, "is to keep employees informed to alleviate concerns they might have. Be open, tell more than necessary, and be reassuring."

Mike Kortan said that FBI press officers do everything they can to communicate with FBI employees. Many times, however, Kortan said, employees see the information on CNN before they can hear it internally. This should not happen, he said.

"During a crisis, you've got to follow the common sense stuff," said Kevin Keane, "like having a plan. You've got to be visible and accessible during times of crisis. People want to see their leaders.

"Be prompt and accurate with your information," he said, "and be sure to confirm it with your experts. Resist the temptation to speculate--stick to the facts as you know them."

Alisa Harrison said that 9/11 helped her understand what consumers need and expect from the government in time of crisis.

"Government authority is key to consumer confidence," she said. "The public wants information from the government before something happens. We are trying to be prepared at USDA. The basics are important."

Harrison said USDA is working to maintain the public's confidence in the food supply and to minimize any negative impact on the food and fiber markets. You need to decide who your key audiences are, she said--the media, stakeholders, consumer groups, and other government departments.

Panel members said it was important to correct information inaccuracies transmitted within your organization--or in the media about your organization.

"Go after the inaccuracy as aggressively as you can," said Keane. "Go to the source. Once you've got it corrected, circulate it widely."

One workshop participant suggested that each employee keep an emergency bag at the office containing items such as cotton clothing, a waterproof jacket, tennis shoes and socks, a toothbrush, a map of the area, bottles of water, and nutrition bars.


Extension offices--like all workplaces--would benefit from having a "continuity of operations" plan to put into place if a crisis or disaster occurs. This plan should address:

  • How to safely evacuate the office,
  • Where to meet or phone so that all staff may be accounted for,
  • Where office operations will continue if the office is closed for repair or rebuilding,
  • Where backups of critical data are stored,
  • Who is authorized to make operational decisions in the absence of regular administrators/supervisors, and
  • How others--including internal staff, clients, partnering organizations, and local media--will be kept informed of how office operations will continue.

The time to answer these questions is before--not during or after--a crisis situation. Everyone in the office should have quick and ready access to the answers--in written form.