In use

A thorough discussion of a simulated exercise

The best way to assess the state of crisis communication preparedness is to test it hands on. This was done in the city of Kuopio, Finland, using the scorecard in a table top exercise. The exercise was a major fire scenario in a school with a child health clinic and kindergarten. Afterwards the exercise was evaluated using the crisis communication scorecard.

The city of Kuopio was keen to conduct an emergency exercise which would focus on crisis communication. Next to an overall evaluation of performance they set the more specific goals of testing the city's internal mobile alert system and, in particular, the call centre for public information.

A simulated exercise

Using the table top format meant that instead of playing their roles at different locations, the participants sat around a big table in the city hall and the events unfolded as decided by the two exercise coordinators who constituted the game centre. The purpose of the game centre - the brains of the exercise - is to confront the people in the exercise with a changing situation to respond to.

In this exercise the game centre allocated tasks to the actors hired to play the roles of journalists and citizens who put pressure on city officials by calling and asking questions about the incident. The roles of the rescue service, hospital and police were acted by the game centre. Facebook was used to simulate rumours spread in the social media, showing how difficult it is to monitor online discussions and manage a crisis at the same time.

The scenario of the exercise included children, which further raised the demands on communication. To add the further challenge of communicating with parents who spoke foreign languages, iIt was assumed that some of the children were immigrants.

Self-assessment and group talk

The scorecard was filled in after the exercise. Similar to the preparedness audit, individual self-assessments were made and these were discussed in a group feedback session soon after the exercise. The exercise focused on the warning and response phases.

To make proper use of the scorecard, the most important thing is a detailed and honest reflection on performance. In this case, the communication officers of the various departments conducted the evaluation together. If the departments had been bigger in size and more independent of one another, comparison of their individual results would have been possible in the group discussion. Differences of opinion concerning the performance indicators were discussed.

Preparedness culture

Although the city of Kuopio had implemented emergency exercises regularly, the communication officers were very willing to focus on communication on this occasion as well. "It makes sense to evaluate the exercise in this way, as the performance indicators are relevant and focus on important issues", said Kaija Nousiainen, the city's communication manager.

The results of the audit showed that the performance in the emergency communication exercise mostly (involved systematic or non-systematic action according to the measurement scale of the scorecard. This demonstrated that the city has a firm preparedness culture and that communication has been part of emergency planning for many years. However, as Nousiainen noted, things change and crisis communication requires continuous updating. For instance, the Internet and the social media have changed the practices of crisis communication tremendously. In the exercise it became clear that with a limited number of communication officers, monitoring of the social media needed to be outsourced. City officials promised that the resource question would be carefully considered in crisis preparedness planning in the future.

Coordination is the key

The core of efficient crisis communication is solid management. In Kuopio it was noted that although tasks are defined in crisis communication plans, their division has to be checked when the management and communication teams first get together. In the future, Internet communication will definitely need more resources and will be used more systematically. "The results of the exercise indicated that there must be enough communication expertise at the crisis management centre", noted Markku Lind, project secretary of the communication department responsible for emergency communication in the city.

For communication officers, maintaining an up-to-date picture of the situation is crucial. Real-time delivery of such a picture would best be achieved via the computer network Precious time is lost if information has to be compiled from different sources. Establishing a common procedure for crisis management logs would help to gain a coherent picture (of the situation) - who said what to whom, when and through what channel should be documented, together with problems discussed and decisions made.

Keeping track of the activities of other response organisations is a challenging task. In the present case information exchange was systematically handled within the home organisation but could have been more active with the rescue service, police, and the local hospital. In a real situation, the rescue service would use special radio phones separate from the public telephone network. The city does not use such a system and is therefore at risk for losing information.

Messaging is important

Messaging, defining stakeholder groups and the selection of channels mostly received positive evaluations in the exercise. However, attention was not systematically given to some public groups, and for other than the main languages of Finnish and Swedish the city would need to hire translators and ask the local refugee centre for assistance.

A strong point that emerged from the exercise concerned the issuing of instructions to public groups. For instance, the press releases and direct letters to parents were informative, clear and showed that the city cared about its residents. Bulletins were published on the special crisis website for citizens, press releases given to the news media, intranet updates provided for city employees, and information relayed to the call centre staff. This was done in time and with coherent content. Various communication channels were used to reach the different public groups.

Specially trained call centre

In this exercise the most important channel for communicating with citizens directly was the call centre. The scorecard states that sufficient and competent manpower needs to be allocated in order to provide information and respond to public distress. If the resources of one response organisation are not enough, the pooling of expertise in the district should be used to ensure the availability of sufficient communication expertise.

The exercise exemplified the kinds of detailed questions personnel at the centre would face in such a crisis, and consequently their need for additional information on the situation and a prognosis about what will happen next. The ability to calm down worried parents, with their varied concerns, entails psychological training of call centre staff. "It may be better to have handful of thoroughly trained experts instead of tens of amateurs in the call centre", Lind commented in the feedback session.

Complicated media relations

Tension between the response organisation and eager media representatives is often mentioned as a constraint. In Kuopio, relations with the local news media were generally good, as attention is paid to relationship management. In the exercise, the services provided for journalists were fast and professional. The city's responsibilities were clearly addressed.

An important idea behind the scorecard is its regular use, for example annually, to maintain strong points while improving weak points in an ongoing process of quality improvement.

Written by Pauliina Palttala, researcher on project Developing a crisis communication scorecard