The True Test of a Successful Crisis Response: Public Trust

No organization, or government, can solve every problem. There will always be a crisis that will require an emergency response. And fundamental to the success of that response will be the public’s reaction. Emergency managers can react and can mobilize, but they will not be successful unless they do so in such a way as to ensure the public trust. This was apparent in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, which was a crisis of government.

Emergency managers must approach every crisis considering the following: “How are we ensuring the public maintains its confidence in us?” “Are we maintaining the public trust?” The answers to these questions will be the true test of success.

Be Prepared, Be Credible & Communicate

First and foremost, to help maintain public trust, emergency managers must be prepared to provide a credible, timely response to a crisis. They must be prepared to meet basic needs through responders and perform to the best of their abilities. The path to achieving this is clear, with resources and trainings available to ensure managers can deliver.

But another, equally critical aspect that many emergency managers do not consider or are not comfortable performing is communicating with the public – being honest and transparent to the public, as quickly and as completely as possible. There is this mindset that says, “Don’t tell the public. They’ll panic.” That is not good advice. Transparency is needed to earn and maintain trust. If senior government officials say one thing, and responders say something different, then distrust is created. And, if people find out they have been misled or purposefully misinformed, that is really bad.

Building public trust is achieved by knowing what to tell the public. First, be clear on the objectives. Let the public know what emergency managers are looking for and what they are looking to do. Then, tell them in real time what is being done; keep communicating throughout and keep these lines open. And, let them know what is expected of them too. Be concise so everyone understands.

Next, let people know if there will be challenges. Do not say everything is going to be okay when it is not. Do not say there will not be problems, when there will definitely be problems. Be realistic. People must have a realistic understanding of the situation. If something will take days to resolve, tell them it will take days.

A Successful Case of Achieving Public Trust

The Tylenol tragedy of 1982 is a textbook example of how to successfully maintain public trust. Bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide, which resulted in several deaths. Johnson & Johnson, the company that makes Tylenol, did not wait for answers: “Was it local?” “Did it come from a lone plant?” They did not know, and they did not care at that point; they pulled ALL their products off the shelf. That was their step one – they provided a credible response.

Johnson & Johnson also told their customers what they were doing: They told their customers they would not put products back on the shelves until they were sure they were safe. They communicated throughout the process. They distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and advertised across national media, warning people not to take any of their products that contained acetaminophen once they determined that these were the capsules that had been affected. The company was clear and concise; they told people what to expect, and they did not “sugar coat” anything.

They also added a critical third piece: they put public safety ahead of their own bottom line. The company did not wait for information or try to minimize the effect on their supply chain. They just pulled all the products. Their reputation was more valuable than anything and, as a direct result, they successfully protected that reputation.

Disasters – Inherently Chaotic

Emergency management is what happens when the traditional organizational chart is no longer capable of managing the crisis. As such, emergency managers must provide a successful response and they must maintain the public’s trust. If the public’s trust is lost, it is not possible to get that time or that credibility back.

Craig Fugate

Craig Fugate was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama and is currently the chief resilience officer at resilience startup One Concern.



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