by Steve Adubato, PhD

When a crisis occurs—including natural disasters like Hurricane Irene—there is often debate as to how those in charge should communicate. These questions revolve around who should be the “communicator-in-chief”, how much information should be shared, how often communication takes place, what mediums should be used, and whether you should speculate on “worst case scenarios”. Hurricane Irene has not only left devastation, death and billions of dollars in economic and personal losses, but it has also raised some questions about how our leaders communicated leading up to, during, and after this much-publicized event.

Let’s talk about a “worst case scenario” communication issue that has reared its head. Some, including media critics like Howard Kurtz, wrote that some of the media coverage was “overhyped” while many others, including some of my own friends and family, said that government officials were too caught up in communicating how bad things could be and the need for people to prepare for devastation and destruction. But here’s the deal. When a potential crisis, be it from Mother Nature or a chemical or environmental disaster, is impending, “worst case scenario” communication is often the most responsible approach.

Effective leadership involves communicating to key constituencies the legitimate possibilities of how dangerous and dicey things could get. In some cases, people can decide for themselves what to do with that information, but in others, the only responsible thing for leaders to do is to mandate action. This includes evacuations, the closing of roads and transportation systems, and other precautionary measures.

What’s interesting is that if leaders had not communicated in this “worst case” fashion and Hurricane Irene was even worse, what would the criticism have been then? Think about the under-reaction and under-communication involving Hurricane Katrina just six years ago. The impact of thousands of lives lost and/or affected might have been reduced if key leaders had communicated in a “worst case” fashion.

Regardless of the type of impending crisis on the horizon, the following communication and leadership tips should prove useful:

--Select one primary communicator-in-chief who will serve as the facilitator in all public situations. Having multiple public spokespeople is confusing. It’s not just what’s being said, but who is saying it that matters in a crisis.

--Make sure that the communicator-in-chief is surrounded by key team members who have specific expertise and relevant information to offer that will support, enhance and clarify what is being said.

--Communicate on a regular, consistent and timely basis. If at all possible, inform key stakeholders (sometimes through the media) when the next scheduled communication will take place, unless events dictate that the schedule should be scrapped.

--While communicating the “worst case scenario”, make sure it is clear that this conclusion is based on reasonable and well-researched facts as opposed to wild speculation about a remote possibility. This is the difference between engaging in hypotheticals versus sharing information about a distinctly possible scenario that must be prepared for.

--When and if things go wrong, and mistakes are made, (no matter how good your intentions are) don’t withhold that information. Share it publicly. Remember, no matter what the crisis or scenario, the cover up will always be worse than the initial crime, or, in this case, mistake.