Public Information During Disasters or Emergencies

If a disaster or emergency were to hit your community, would your organization be prepared? 

We all saw this play out with COVID-19. While it wasn’t a traditional “disaster,” many of the same players were called to the forefront to address the issue. Many organizations, including government, nonprofits, and even businesses, came together to try to make sense of it all, especially in the beginning. 

As someone who saw this play out, I realized there were many ways it was no different from a wildfire, or an oil spill, or a law enforcement emergency, especially when it comes to public information. 

With public information, the goal is always to get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions. Often, there is little to no plan for public information before something happens, and everyone is left scrambling. 

In my experience with state and local government, law enforcement, and fire in rural states and communities, there are things I’ve seen they all have in common. First, in many small counties, officials wear many hats. These places often have small tax bases, meaning they don’t have much money, and it is challenging to plan for everything.

However, getting the public information they need promptly typically saves time in the long run. This, in turn, allows responders more time to focus on the issue at hand. 

There are a few things officials can do to better prepare regarding public information in the event of a disaster. Of course, everyone in your organization that could play a role should take ICS-100 and ICS-700 at a minimum. After all, if people don’t understand the Incident Command System, it is guaranteed they won’t know how to follow it. 

Picture of a crowd and Governor being briefed on a wildfire in front of a huge map of the fire.
Briefing the Governor of Montana, as well as cooperators and stakeholders.

Speak with one voice

Mixed messages coming from multiple sources are the fastest way to lose public trust and confuse people. And this is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that it can potentially put people’s lives in danger. To remedy this, here are a few suggestions for pre-planning:

  1. Identify who is the lead agency for specific situations. If it’s a law enforcement emergency, let it be law enforcement. If it’s an earthquake, perhaps it’s Disaster and Emergency Services. Wildfires? Pandemic? Flooding? Know who is in charge of the incident and, therefore, the message. Then identify who the public information officers are within each entity. 
  2. Know ahead of time how the information will be shared and what the official source will be. If law enforcement is the lead, it will make sense that they are releasing information to the media, posting to social media, and taking phone calls. At the start of an incident, clearly articulate the lead. The other entities can then share the message, ensuring it is consistent. 
  3. Make sure nobody is “free-lancing.” In other words, only share information approved by the lead Public Information Officer who should be working closely with the Incident Commander.

In many instances, consider a Unified Command, or at the very least a Joint Information System/Joint Information Center (JIS/JIC). This ensures all PIOs are communicating and releasing the correct information.

I was on a wildfire recently with my incident management team, and we saw several of these issues play out. The most potentially dangerous was number three. The incident management team was delegated authority over the fire. It therefore should have been the official source of fire information. However, there were many organizations and even individuals putting out information independently that could have potentially had dire consequences if it had been wrong. 

A picture of two yurts set up at a fire camp.
If there is a delegation of authority to an incident management team, it’s important to follow the proper chain-of-command.

Have a contact list

In the middle of an emerging incident, nothing sucks precious time more than trying to chase down information, including phone numbers and emails. Have a way to get in touch with fellow responders quickly. 

A few years ago, a wildfire north of my town had the potential to threaten the city. It was in an adjoining county and was putting up a lot of smoke and alarming the public. While officials from both counties knew each other and often attended meetings together, it turns out there were many who didn’t have everyone’s phone numbers. Having phone numbers would have allowed for quick communication, streamlining the messages to the public.

This is very low-hanging fruit for potentially mitigating issues in the middle of an incident. 

Figure out your key players. Is it the fire chiefs, sheriff, disaster and emergency services, state or federal agencies? If you have a river running through your area, consider if there is potential for oil spills or other environmental disasters, and figure out who would be working on such an incident. Trust me; when the rubber meets the road, you will be happy to have that list of phone numbers. Additionally, make sure everyone on the list has the list. 

Picture of a dirt road with burned ground on both sides from a wildfire.
When an incident occurs, make sure all the right people are being notified in a timely manner.

Have a call down tree

If something happens, know who notifies who. I’ve often experienced public information officers being notified too late, almost as an afterthought. This is usually too late, and agencies are then already way behind on messaging. 

A military public affairs officer once told me, “PIOs are only as effective as the information given to them by the people that know what is happening on the ground.” 

Make sure those responding on the ground know how important it is to get out public information immediately. If the information is delayed, the public begins filling in the blanks with rumors, hearsay, and misinformation.

Make sure you are in charge of your message and are acting, not reacting. 

Have a call-down tree that expressly shows who should notify the PIO of an incident. Ideally, this would be the incident commander or designee since, in the ICS, the PIO is attached to the IC. 

Final Thoughts

While public information encompasses much more than this, hopefully, you can implement these things with minimal effort. These suggestions may seem like common sense, but I am amazed at how often these things are overlooked.

Emergencies and disasters are stressful enough. Beforehand, know who is in charge of public information and how to get ahold of that person. Make sure everyone that should be notified is. 

No incident will go off perfectly. After all, the people responding are humans, and humans make mistakes, but that is where preparation and planning come in.

It’s a team effort, and getting to know your teammates beforehand by working through these things will also help build trust amongst each other. 

If you’d like help with public information for disasters and emergencies planning, reach out to me to set up a free one-hour consultation. I’d also love to hear about other issues you’ve had or solutions you’ve come up with!


Why your organization could benefit from strategic communications

The world of communications can be confusing and nuanced and for those not in the profession, it can be a bit daunting. You may wonder if you need communications, but what type, what will it do for your organization, where do you even start and how much will it cost? 

To begin, it’s good to have a general understanding of some of the overall categories of work that fall under the broader concept of “communications”. 

Throughout my career I’ve heard well-meaning managers, staff and politicians ask for one type of communications, when they really meant another. For example, they may want public relations, but ask for a marketing campaign. It’s understandably difficult; even those of us in the field of communications can be confused, and sometimes the lingo varies depending on the type of organization being represented (public information vs. public affairs vs. public relations!).  

Public Relations 

According to Wikipedia, public relations is managing the release or spread of information and how it affects public perception. Organizations such as business, government agencies or non-profits can typically benefit from public relations. The most common is telling a story through traditional media, and these days, social media. It can even extend to email blasts or other outreach. News releases or pitches may be used to convince reporters your organization has a story to tell. It can be extended to include press conferences, common in emergency situations, for big announcements or major calls to action.  Often, this falls under what is called ‘earned media,’ rather than paying for advertising or direct marketing.   

Media Relations 

A common mistake people also make is using Public Relations and Media Relations interchangeably. Media relations is the relationship organizations, or individuals within the organization, have with members of the media. This can include journalists and reporters in print, radio, TV, bloggers and even podcasters. A good relationship with these important story tellers is critical to telling your story. A good relationship can mean the difference between a story that paints your organization in a positive light, or one that has you scrambling to do damage control. When you’ve built trust, members of the media will come to you as a credible source, to help them understand what is going on, dispel rumors and seek clarity.  

Marketing Communications 

To understand Marketing Communications, we first must have a general understanding of what marketing is. Merriam-Webster defines marketing as the process or technique of promoting, selling and distributing a product or service, or the aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer. So, what is Marketing Communications then? Wikipedia says it is simply “the use of different marketing channels and tools in combination.” In the field of Communications, I always use the phrase “tools in the toolbox.” In this instance, the tools could include advertising, social media, blogging, direct marketing, sales, relationship building and networking and public relations.  

Depending on what industry you are in, the percentage of each tool used can differ greatly. For example, government is going to use far less advertising. They are concerned with people having factual, accurate information about how they are serving the public or how something they are doing will impact people. They may rely more heavily on public relations and social media, whereas a company selling a product may use a lot more paid advertising or direct sales.  

Do you need Communications in your organization? 

Likely, there is a chance you are already doing some form of communicating. If you have a social media account for your organization, you are doing communications. But are you doing it optimally? If you’ve ever had a newspaper story written about your company, you’ve touched on public relations. But could you be telling more of your story and did it turn out the way you wanted it to? Did your quote accurately depict what you were trying to say? Have you paid for advertising on the radio, on TV or in the newspaper? Were the results what you wanted them to be? When you are already focused on creating a quality product or service, any of these questions can be overwhelming. And that is where communications professionals come in. We help you discern the best avenues for getting information to your audience about what your organization is doing, to get them to buy your product, or to answer a call to action like donating to your non-profit. We then help create the information and get it out there.  


To begin to incorporate a broader communication strategy in your organization utilizing the expertise of someone in this field, there are several routes you can take.  

First, you may choose to directly hire a communication professional. Not only will you pay a salary for the position, but you will also incur the cost of benefits (insurance, paid time off, etc.). Depending on the size of your organization, you may or may not need a full-time person.  

If your organization is large enough, you may need an entire team of communications professionals! Large organizations may have in-house communication teams, or they may hire firms that have a wide variety of specialties, including public relations, advertising, social media marketing, graphic design and more.  

But if you’ve made it this far in this post, you probably don’t fall in those categories. If your organization is too small to need a full-time communication professional, a more feasible alternative may be to hire a consultant. Consultants (such as Keep Cool Consulting), can do work by the hour, on a project basis or on a retainer. Typically, a package can be customized to fit your budget and organizational needs.  

For example, you may be a small government organization in rural Montana that doesn’t have the tax base, or the need for full-time public relations. But what happens when there is controversy about a decision that’s been made, or you have an emergency like an oil spill? Having someone to serve as a public information officer in an emergency or to do public relations in a controversial situation can be the difference between a successful outcome and ongoing fall-out.  


While you may not need a full-time communication professional on staff, and you may not even need one on a regular basis, it is smart business sense to have a back-up plan should you need to do additional public relations, marketing or something else.  

In what ways could your organization use better communications strategies?  


Thank you for finding your way to my site and my business, I am glad you are here.

The mission of Keep Cool Consulting is to provide exceptional, honest, easy to understand and timely communications services to clients so they may build trust and relationships in their organizations and community.

Communications is a broad term that is often confusing, even to those of us in the business. In coming blogs, I hope to explain the various areas of expertise, from public relations to marketing and everything in between and what they actually mean. The idea is to help you determine your actual needs, or at least have a better understanding of what you may be looking for.

While I have extensive experience in many areas, sometimes what I provide just isn’t what you may need. In that case, I’m happy to refer you to other professionals in my vast network.

When you work with me, you will get honest feedback, professional delivery and communication and enthusiastic ideas. I will work with your team to ensure you are getting what you need.

Feel free to drop me a line or give me a call as I’d love to discuss your communication needs.