Feature: Crisis Communications – this changes everything

With the world in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, Debbie Evans of Evans Marketing Partners shares insights gained from 15 years of crisis communications.

I have been teaching crisis communications seminars for associations and private organisations for more than 15 years. I generally begin by asking for a show of hands – “How many of you have been part of managing a crisis situation at work?” Generally, no matter what the size of the audience, only a handful of participants raise their hand.

Just a little over 10 years ago, in the world of crisis communications, when we said “This changes everything!” we were referring to social media. Journalists look to social media to find story ideas, eye-witnesses, video and information. And, thanks to social media, everyone is now a reporter. While the concept that “social media changed everything” in terms of reporting was already old news before the COVID-19 pandemic, I never expected something to change crisis communications as dramatically as social media did. I was wrong.

What I do know, now more than ever, is that things change. In fact, one of my favorite steps in the commonly referred to “Six Steps to Managing a Crisis” is step number six,  “Repeat as necessary.” Why? Because things change. They always have. New information becomes available. Victim/witness/patient status changes. People’s stories change. Sometimes even the facts change. Yes, we can’t even count on the facts to be facts. What we can count on is, the more prepared we are for a crisis, the better we will be able to manage it.

Here are the six common steps to managing a crisis:

  • Assemble crisis team
  • Gather information
  • Assess the situation
  • Prepare to communicate
  • Implement communications plan
  • Repeat as necessary

Without some explanation or experience, these steps aren’t that helpful. Now that you have some level of crisis communications experience you can begin to think about how, knowingly or unknowingly, you may have worked through these stages in determining how to address your operations at the beginning of the pandemic, and how those tactics changed as new information and new government restrictions became available.

When it became clear that the coronavirus would impact operations in North America, at the request of ICON Attractions I began preparing a crisis communications plan, specific to this crisis, for The Capital Wheel at National Harbor.  A key element of that plan was a list of stakeholders that we would need to communicate with. We came up with messaging, tweaked it for each audience, and developed the tools we would need to deploy that messaging. Then, we changed it. Every time new information was shared by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Each time guidance from state and local government changed. Every hour as we tracked public sentiment, consumer behavior and the actions of our industry.


We prepared and shared updates both internally and externally.

Internal: updates for team members via WhenToWork, training and talking points for front line personnel while The Capital Wheel was still operating, new employee facing signage, new more visible sanitation procedures, information on benefits available from state and local agencies

External: website updates including a landing page for detailed information, social media posts with information and photos, personal emails to clients with group bookings or lighting sponsorships, email updates for our fellow National Harbor merchants and residents, new voicemail messages, guest facing signage, and phone calls and emails to local tourism organizations

There is so much to learn from this global crisis. Take the time to note what you think is working, and what you think could be done differently. Don’t judge others; we are all in this new situation together. Use this time as an opportunity to grow and learn and prepare for the next crisis. It’s not a matter of if, but when.



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