Effective crisis communication and public information management is an important part of what candidates enrolled in the online Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Public Management program at Arkansas State University will learn. Regardless of the public sector role it occupies, a public service organization will inevitably have to deal with crises of many sorts, the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic being prime examples.
An organization’s effectiveness and reputation depend in large part on that organization’s response to crises, including strategic communications and the appropriate management of public information. Whether directly or through oversight of department heads, consultants and the communications or public relations team, public administrators are responsible for designing and implementing proactive and responsive crisis and information management plans.
What Is a Crisis?
Crises faced by organizations will vary greatly, depending on the kind of organization and the situation. The Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE) explains that a crisis “is usually caused by unexpected occurrences that suddenly interrupt an organization’s normal operation.” A crisis will generally cause instability for the workforce, customers and the organization as a whole. A crisis-level event is unforeseen and surprising, threatens the organization or others and necessitates impactful, timely decision-making and change.
For professionals in public service administrative roles, the way they handle a crisis may impact their organization dramatically. But, as with public health and safety communications and responses to the pandemic, crisis management in public administration can also impact the well-being and survival of the public at large, literally. Thus, public sector crisis response involves not only rapid decision-making, strategic communication and information management but also complex moral and ethical considerations.
How Can Public Service Organizations Use Strategic Communication to Respond to Different Crises?
Although the above explanations of crisis are not focused solely on public service organizations, they are certainly applicable. For example, disaster response agencies deal with physical and emotional public safety issues that arise from disasters, and their public reputation also depends on the speed and effectiveness of their response. Plus, the strength of their response can affect public funding, so a disaster could create a crisis that affects not only public safety and the organization’s reputation but also its finances.
The organization must effectively use all modes of communication available to execute its crisis response strategy. This can include the use of traditional media, social media and even smartphone alerts to give the public clear instructions on how to stay safe and get help. Part of a proactive approach to crisis response is communicating all of this information to the public before any disaster occurs, allowing them to react immediately when one does occur.
Or perhaps the crisis is more nuanced, such as a publicized incident involving negative interactions between individuals in a police department and the community. In this situation, an effective response (and resulting reputation) is based on clear, strategic crisis communication. Again, using all communication platforms is necessary for both communicating the organization’s position and plan for response as well as interacting with the community in that response.
In this example, engaging the community and involving them with police department training, policy and public programming can help develop the type of relationship and reputation that may prevent this type of crisis from happening in the first place. This can be a good form of proactive crisis communication and strategy.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, U.S. government crisis communication and public messaging during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was reactive at best, lacking clarity in communicating accurate or timely information and guidelines for public safety. Much of this was due to unknowns surrounding the novel coronavirus and the steep learning curve faced by public health organizations. But it resulted in localized crisis response varying widely, becoming politicized and inhibiting the effectiveness of public messaging surrounding vaccines and further pandemic mitigation measures.
A key part of these challenges is the nature of crisis communication and information management when a wealth of information — both fact-based and distinctly nonfactual — is readily available, and the legitimacy of information sources and communication channels can be hard to judge. For the public service administrator, learning how to manage information, clearly communicate that information through appropriate channels and ensure the validity of information the public receives is of utmost importance.
What Is Effective Public Information Management?
In today’s digital age, the public has access to information of all sorts — from organizational records to policies, communications and much more. Transparent information sharing is expected of many public service organizations. Yet discretion and the protection of individual privacy is also highly valued and even required at times. Moreover, administrators who design organizational systems that intelligently incorporate the widespread information available through public systems and data analytics services can greatly improve the ability of that organization to fulfill its purpose.
Clearly, an in-depth understanding of crisis communication and public information management is necessary for public service administrators. An organization’s success and reputation rely on both of these aspects of public management. An administrator’s ability to use public information to create a proactive crisis response strategy, as well as communicate and execute that strategy through appropriately managing public information, can help the organization be most effective.