Privacy Tool Kit

Crisis Communication with the Media

[Adapted from Principles of Crisis Communication: After 9/11, prepared for ALA by Brian Specht (ALA Annual Conference 2002); and Communicating in a Crisis, prepared by Nancy Kranich (1-10-05)]

A crisis is a difficult period of actual or perceived damage to an institution, unit, or individual, triggered by a sudden event or a rapidly developing problem. A crisis may affect safety or security, financial stability, reputation or the general ability to conduct business.

Crisis communication pertains to the exchange of information among the library administration, its governing body, and staff as well as between the library and law enforcement officials, the media, governmental agencies and the general public. A crisis communication plan addresses both preparedness and incident response.

Before a Crisis Occurs

  • Develop a Crisis Communication Plan.
  • Create a Crisis Management Team.
  • Create a Crisis Communication Team, including spokespeople.

Developing the Crisis Communication Plan

  • Prepare audience lists (media, stakeholders, friends).
  • Reach out to media regularly and maintain key relationships.
  • Have your policy guidelines and institutional facts updated and available.
  • Reference the library's policies, relevant ALA documents and applicable federal, state and local laws.
  • Evaluate all practices for handling print and electronic records and files, the library's physical plant, and the level of staff awareness of privacy and confidentiality of patron and user-identifiable information.
  • Assess potential crises and draft talking points/statements.
  • Seek opportunities to neutralize potential flash points.
  • Monitor news for potential emerging problems.
  • Be prepared to respond readily and accurately to a 24-hour global media - your response mechanism should be equal to the speed of the media.
  • Conduct drills to stay sharp.

Organize Your Teams

  • Develop and maintain a comprehensive contact list for teams (24 hour contact information).
  • Establish a notification system.
  • Clarify lines of responsibility, authority, and communication channels.
  • Determine who should handle all inquiries in the absence of the Director, the Privacy Officer (staff member authorized to accept or comply with investigatory requests) or Administrator (most senior member of the organization on duty).
  • Designate who will handle communications with the staff, media, public and other government agencies.
  • Meet periodically to discuss potential threats and develop strategies.
  • Train all full and part-time paid and volunteer employees on the library's policies, procedures and crisis communication plan.

Crisis Management Team:

  • Library leader
  • Key librarians and staff
  • Trustees representative
  • Volunteers representative
  • Communications (see below)
  • Legal counsel
  • Make sure you are prepared to quickly reach out to key friends and allies of the library

Crisis Communication Team:

  • responsible for all aspects of communication, including information gathering, media contacts, and public relations


  • Designate a limited number of spokespeople.
  • Select spokespeople who have credibility with their corresponding audience(s).
  • Use most senior leader to take overall accountability.
  • Training is vital - even a quick on the spot "mock interview" can be very helpful.

Communications Goals in a Crisis

  • Contribute to ending the crisis
  • Protect your library's reputation
  • Reduce tension
  • Demonstrate commitment to values
  • Communicate promptly and continuously to maintain control of flow of information

Ground Rules: The Three "Cs"

  • Candor: be honest, take necessary responsibility, and don't set unreasonable expectations.
  • Concern: concern for health and safety needs to be foremost in responding. Show some controlled emotion and empathy (but don't overdo it!).
  • Courage: Don't hide from the issue. A leader is not afraid to stand up, take responsibility, and get at the source of a problem.

Crisis Communication Team-Internal Preparations

  • Consider, above all other factors, the health/safety of visitors, employees, public and community.
  • Gather all facts as rapidly as possible.
  • Immediately notify—and maintain contact with—appropriate local authorities (Police, Fire, etc.).
  • Have someone with a legal perspective involved.
  • Develop talking points to answer predictable questions.
  • Maintain records of all proceedings.
  • Encourage candid discussion of solutions.
  • Communicate quickly and fully with one another.
  • Monitor events and adapt as necessary.
  • Lead and facilitate investigation.
  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know."

Crisis Communication Team - External Issues

  • Understand the direct correlation between crises and brand management.
  • Conduct a risk/benefit analysis to determine whether to go public, keeping in mind that those institutions that were forthcoming in a crisis (e.g., Tylenol case) fared better than those that were reticent (e.g., Firestone tire recall).
  • Centralize incoming calls to appropriate spokespeople.
  • Respond as quickly as possible to media calls—but don't panic and don't compromise accuracy.
  • Make announcements promptly, unless special circumstances exist.
  • Tell good stories so when bad news comes along you are given the benefit of the doubt.
  • Do not fight with journalists even though you are under a lot of pressure.
  • If a crisis is sustained, assign people to serve in shifts.
  • Keep log of responses to journalists.
  • Get the bad news out fast and get it over with.
  • Apologize: accept responsibility when you are at fault - your credibility is on the line.
  • Never lie.
  • Monitor news reports so you can quell rumors and correct inaccuracies.
  • Provide information that gives public alternatives.
  • Communicate with each audience as directly as possible.

Manage your Website when the Internet in a Crisis

  • Add crisis news promptly.
  • Consider a "dark Web site" to activate quickly in extreme situations.
  • Monitor news reports, specific sites and chat rooms.
  • Monitor incoming e-mail closely.

Some Questions to Expect

  • What caused the incident?
  • What is the library procedure to handle such an incident?
  • Will there be an investigation?
  • What is being done to mitigate the risk?
  • Has this happened before? If so, when?
  • What is the library policy on this matter?

Developing Your Messages

  • Clarify your objective.
  • Organize your facts.
  • Anticipate your toughest questions.
  • Know what you want, and don't want, to say.
  • Stay focused on 2-3 Key Messages (facts, concern, commitment, action).
  • Use anecdotes, examples and illustrations.

When Risk and Fear are Issues

  • Listen. Don't be compelled to constantly speak.
  • When you do, speak clearly and with concern.
  • Avoid unreasonable comparisons and statistics.
  • Tell what you know, what you don't know.
  • Whenever possible talk about actions.

Identify Your Audiences

  • Library Users/General Public
  • Employees
  • Community
  • Government/Law Enforcement
  • Media
  • Any others
  • Use appropriate tools to communicate with each audience; be proactive when communicating with public and use outlets you control, like your web site.

After the Crisis

  • Debrief everyone involved for lessons learned
  • Review actions taken and look for missteps to be corrected
  • Praise what was done well
  • Document actions and keep on file for future reference

Crisis Rules to Live By

  • Be part of the solution (especially if you were part of the problem).
  • Honesty is STILL the best policy.
  • And, be prepared. It can make ALL the difference.


See also: The Library's Crisis Communications Planner: A PR Guide for Handling Every Emergency / Jan Thenell. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2004. ISBN: 0-8389-0870-5.

Crisis Communication with the Media revised April 11, 2005