7 steps to preparing emergency campaigns when there isn't an emergency

An emergency is inevitable, a crisis doesn’t have to be

Communications professionals, emergency planners and operational staff in Government and the emergency services all know that planning for an emergency is vital, but many organisations don’t plan proactively, they wait until the inevitable and become reactive. 

That’s why it’s key to not only prepare during the dull days but prepare collaboratively across the organisation. By first enabling a campaign of engagement internally, you can make sure that everyone - not just corporate communications or emergency planning - is ready for that crisis that lurks around the corner.

Here are some key things to consider when getting your organisation ready to go and prepared for pretty much anything that can and will come it’s way;

Identify advocates

Working out who your audience is (or should be) is a crucial first step, and for most organisations it makes sense to start with the people you’re already engaged with.  Some call it stakeholder mapping. In the past, we’ve made a huge list of ‘who is interested in us for good reasons’ and‘who is interested in us for other reasons’. 

There are the obvious ones such as employees and clients, partners and Government departments but look elsewhere for those that have values aligned to those of your organisation but who might not necessarily be directly involved in your organisation.

The key is to identify those who have a stake in the success of your organisation and who can encourage others to make things happen on your behalf. 

Why should they care?

Let’s face it, most people do or will at some time think “What’s in it for me?’ or “How does this affect me?” So tell them. There’s no dark art to getting people involved. It’s a transactional business - you give them something, they give you something. Being open and transparent about your aims helps you get there quicker. 

When you want to engage with someone you need to understand what motivates them. It’s really hard to get people to believe that something could happen to them and it could have a direct impact on their life if they don’t do x, y or z. Look at crime prevention campaigns - people don’t end to hide their phone away because of a poster but they certainly do once it’s stolen and they have a new one. 

We aren’t suggesting engineering an emergency to get people to really feel the pain, but this is where you get people who have been impacted by an emergency to speak to them - either through a film, article or at roadshows. I changed the way I did campaigns forever after hearing a first hand account of a high profile female kidnap victim - her first words were ‘you never think it’s going to happen to you’.

These things sadly do happen, it’s up to you to work out how, when and where people will listen.

How are you going to keep your advocates updated?

There are more ways to communicate than ever before. It’s an overwhelming situation of information overload and too many choices - both for you and the person you want to communicate with. It’s been proven now that social media analytics are unreliable and it’s difficult to measure engagement and ROI to use in any meaningful way. 

So it comes back to what motivates people. People use different platforms for different purposes. Social channels are mainly used by people to pick up snippets of info or fast moving updates, blogs are usually considered to be more informative and the news is still watched, read and listened to.

Some people still like to receive pamphlets in the post and some enjoy the interaction of talking to people at drop-ins. Once you identify those audiences, you’ll find it a lot easier to work out how they like to receive information during an emergency rather than how you like to publish information.

Keep an eye on the success of your content on each platform and don’t be afraid to dynamically tailor your communication strategy to that info. Having this vital info will inform how and where you should engage as an emergency.

How are you going to empower people?

The main goal of a strategy for an emergency is to get people to take action.

The issue here is that competition is tough. It’s not like the days of big wars when the Government would publish information films and everyone would watch, listen and act. Now there are so many different influences that compete for attention that it makes it near on impossible to land your message. If asked, anyone sober would surely not advocate drink driving, but they still do it. Ask someone if they would knowingly cause a fatal car crash by texting at the wheel - of course they wouldn’t, but it still happens. 

Unfortunately, a lot of the time in emergencies it often takes something bad to happen for something good to happen. You need to get to the point quickly and make it stick. Trust in the Government is low and no one knows where to get trusted information from which is why it’s absolutely key in ‘peace time’ to become a trusted voice that always provides accurate timely and useful information.

Reading content is fine, but try to demonstrate the change for good that person will experience by reading and sharing that content.

Why measure success?

So many meetings where the words ‘how will we measure success?’ are mentioned. That’s all well and good but few people actually define what success is. 

Remember, it’s very difficult to prove a negative (think ‘these people didn’t get sick because they saw our poster’) and it’s also hard to show that success can only be a low number even if that relates to saving lives. Anything emergency related in the public sector is usually very emotive so success to a police officer might mean fewer road deaths, to a fire fighter it could mean fewer call outs to catastrophic building fires, to a person on the street it could mean they didn’t get robbed of their phone and suffering from traumatic stress related illness as a result. 

It sounds dramatic, but it comes back to identifying audiences and what motivates them. Then you can measure success. Then you can work out how. 

Start logging everything as soon as you can - such as followers, retweets, clicks, email opens and link clicks, phone calls into your customer services team, media enquiries - everything. Once you do, you can start seeing patterns and see how things change during an emergency. 

Once you have this information then you can prove - or disprove - a campaign has worked.

Who are your key influencers?

Key influencers is a term that’s used a lot. Many people see it as the media or figureheads of organisations, but it really isn’t it a lot of the time. Again, without wanting to get repetitive, it depends on your audience and their motivation. A key influencer is someone who can influence someone into making a decision or taking action. It sounds obvious but it isn’t always - and your choice of key influencer may be seen as controversial by some.

One campaign I worked on, we took a chance in asking an ex-gang member who had committed murder to be a key influencer. We came under so much scrutiny - fair enough - but it was downright nasty criticism at times. However, it was effective. We managed to have the highest rate of return of bladed weapons on a knife amnesty in history. He went out there, spoke openly about how a knife injury ruined his chances of being a pro-footballer and it worked. 

I always, always advocate getting out from behind the desk to understand a campaign before it’s created (read here) so it’s worth seeing where your audience live, what they do and who they engage with in their communities. When we came to working on a national strategy around shale gas, you can guarantee the people who lived in the places where fracking was going to happen couldn’t care less what a Government policy maker was telling them. It was the local vicar. 

It can take a while and it can also take a combination of efforts and relationships but this is vital to the success of ensuring the right people listen and the right time.

What about when there isn’t an emergency?

Let’s face it, people do tend to listen or engage more when an emergency is happening - right now - you’ve got a captive audience to a point, but what about when things are all calm and people have forgotten about the drama and the excitement? You need to keep them engaged all the time.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be sending out emails every day or writing a new article every week, but consider that authoritative voice again and keep it constant. Heightened awareness always comes after a significant emergency but you need to keep the interest. We always saw a huge surge in the number of social followers after the worst happened, but we didn’t want to lose them. Inevitably some will go as they have a very narrow area of interest, but it always helped us to keep them engaged with consistent informative content. 

The lifecycle of an emergency is exactly that, a cycle, and you can engage at every stage no matter how long the cycle is.

And finally...

Working together and collaborating is vital in the success of any emergency plan , so ensuring you have an internal plan that encompasses everyone and not just key departments should be top priority. Then it needs to be shared and worked on with other agencies so that you can provide an effective, consistent and authoritative voice during times of emergencies. 

People don’t want to know necessarily who is sending out information, they just want information that comes from a single voice. Sometimes that voice might consistent of twenty or thirty agencies, but at least that voice is coherent and cohesive. 


Christine Townsend worked in emergency communication for fifteen years both in the emergency services and Government. She created MusterPoint to help organisations manage their comms collaboratively - with social media management, media enquiry management and publishing and full archiving and audit and accountability. 

Christine created an affordable social media emergency simulator and delivers training around the world to different public sector agencies. Connect with her on LinkedIn or book a demo with MusterPoint to see how it can help you and your organisation.