Planning for Effective Media Relations During a Critical Incident2014-10-23T17:14:32-04:00

By Ernest G. Vendrell, CPP, CPO, CEM
January 2001
Reprint Protection News

Many experts today are predicting that both private and public organizations in the United States and around the world will be confronted with critical incidents that are likely to increase in number and level of severity. As a result, planning for critical incidents has taken on greater importance as well as a renewed sense of urgency1 .

Critical Incidents are unplanned events such as natural disasters, hazardous materials spills, transportation disasters, workplace violence situations, and other life threatening events. The extraordinary dimensions of these situations require special organizational skills and abilities on the part of emergency response personnel in order to attain a successful outcome.

Consequently, an emergency response plan that provides the necessary structure for managing and effectively communicating during a critical incident is of vital importance to any organization. Besides helping to save lives and reduce property loss, a well thought out emergency response plan can serve to lessen an organization’s potential liability.

Emergency Planning Considerations

Clearly, no emergency response plan can be applied to every potential crisis situation. However, a comprehensive plan that takes into account potential natural, technological, and man-made threats, and involves key personnel in the planning process, can help an organization to systematically manage emergencies in an effective and efficient manner. Typically, this will involve analyzing capabilities and hazards, outlining specific roles and responsibilities, and identifying critical company products and services. These activities help to ensure a coordinated and effective response when a critical incident does occur.

Regardless of the type of crisis, there are a series of essential planning requirements that must be taken into account for an organization to be successful when a critical incident occurs. Some of these include: deciding policy, identifying resources, selecting and training crisis team personnel, locating the emergency operations center, and dealing with the media2 . Of these, procedures for dealing with the media is an often overlooked aspect of emergency response planning.

Planning for Effective Media Relations

When a critical incident occurs, the security manager will undoubtedly be pulled in many different directions. Faced with a considerable number of important tasks, the security manager may not view media relations as a primary concern. However, being prepared ahead of time to deal with the media can help an organization to get through the incident without the additional damage that can be caused by misinformation and speculation. In addition, the negative publicity that an organization receives as a result of a critical incident can have far reaching effects. An organization’s image and business can be adversely impacted. Litigation is bound to result as victims, the families of victims, employees, customers, and perhaps various interested outside parties, will be seeking to lay blame and recover damages. Attorneys are bound to examine every newspaper account and TV report of the incident. They will, of course, be looking for statements from representatives of the organization for any admissions or confirmation that the organization was in some way negligent3 .

Consequently, there are a number of effective crisis communication steps that organizations should consider4:

Have a media plan
Build a relationship with the media before a crisis strikes
Train employees in crisis communications
Maintain a good relationship with the media after a crisis

Cooperating with the media provides an organization with a number of important benefits that far outweigh the benefits of denying them access. In particular, it gives the organization an opportunity to provide its side of the story. This is important since, oftentimes, the spokesperson for the organization can make available background information that may provide a different perspective on the situation. Furthermore, working with the media may prevent reporters from seeking out secondary sources that are typically less informed and more likely to misrepresent the organization. Therefore, it is far better to have the organization give an accurate statement of the situation as opposed to leaving it up to the reporter to locate an "informed" source which can lead to speculation and misinformation. Saying nothing also has its own risks. Ignoring bad news will not make the incident go away and usually this tactic raises additional questions5 .

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a number of important considerations for dealing with the media in an emergency. These include6:

Designate a trained spokesperson and an alternate spokesperson
Set up a media briefing area
Establish security procedures
Establish procedures for ensuring that information is complete, accurate, and approved for public release
Determine an appropriate and useful way of communicating technical information
Prepare background information about the facility

FEMA also provides the following guidelines when providing information to the media during an emergency7:


Give all media equal access to the information
When appropriate, conduct press briefings and interviews. Give local and national media equal time
Try to observe media deadlines
Escort media representatives to ensure safety
Keep records of information released
Provide press releases when possible


Do not speculate about the incident
Do not permit unauthorized personnel to release information
Do not cover up facts or mislead the media
Do not put blame on the incident

Another strategy for ensuring effective media relations during a critical incident is to develop media kits ahead of time. The media kits should be maintained in the emergency operations center and immediately distributed to designated personnel when a crisis situation occurs. However, it should be noted that without realistic, periodic practice (at least once a year), even the best crisis media relations plan will fall short.


An emergency response plan must provide the necessary structure for managing and effectively communicating during a critical incident. Although safety issues are always a top consideration, a security manager or supervisor cannot overlook the importance of an effective crisis media relations plan. This plan must be implemented quickly during a critical incident in order to provide accurate and timely information while safeguarding the reputation and interests of the organization.


1 R. Sylves, and W. Waugh, Jr., eds., Disaster Management in the U.S. and Canada (Springfield. IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1996); R. Paschall, Critical Incident Management (Chicago, IL: The Office of International Criminal Justice, 1992); R. Gigliotti and R. Jason, Emergency Planning for Maximum Protection ( Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1991).

2 M. Nudell and N. Antokol, The Handbook for Effective Emergency Management (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988).b

3 R. Gardner, Getting Ahead of the Headlines. Security Management, vol. 41, No. 7, pp. 115-119.

4 R. Nuss, Effective Media Crisis Communication During a Critical Incident (Winter Springs, FL: Nuss and Associates, Inc., 1997), p. 1.

5 Gardner, supra note 3.

6 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), p. 41.

7 Ibid