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A new administration: Crisis communication in the aftermath of the Capitol incident

A new administration: Crisis communication in the aftermath of the Capitol incident

In an op-ed, professors discuss what effective communication of the Capitol incident by the new administration should look like.

January 20, 2021 at 6:00pm

By Aileen Izquierdo, Heather Radi-Bermudez, APR; Raquel Perez, Ph.D.

The concept of crisis communications can elicit images of Olivia Pope rattling off a monologue to a slew of reporters. Though not quite as sexy in reality, crisis communication is at the heart of any professional communication enterprise. The recent crisis at our nation's Capitol further illustrates the importance of strategic communication planning in an effort to manage challenging, scary and sometimes unthinkable situations.

Regardless of one’s political opinions or ideology, what happened at the U.S. Capitol is a moment that will be chronicled in history books, and each individual involved has a different story to tell.

If we look at the U.S. Capitol as the point of interest for this analysis, it is important to recognize that there are no shortages of vulnerabilities that could impact this U.S. institution. Those who oversee this magnificent structure understand its critical role, not only in history but in the day-to-day lives of citizens, workers and other individuals.

It's not our place to question how the Capitol police and other police agencies managed the situation, but the optics shared around the world tell a very particular story. In the coming days, it will become increasingly important to share facts associated with what happened in terms of breaching the Capitol structure. With that information, it will be the responsibility of the team who oversees the Capitol to assess what happened and how, as well as review and revise the processes that failed and those that were successful. This includes the way messages were shared with the internal constituents of the U.S. Capitol, the news organizations that have been covering this story since it started, and the American people.

It is in this crucial management and retrospect of the crisis that we find the learnings and key takeaways that strengthen us and our teams.  In rapidly developing situations like the one we witnessed last week, we can be shocked, but we cannot be surprised. Equally important to evaluating vulnerabilities is recognizing opportunities in times of crisis – particularly when it comes to leadership. Leaders within an organization must act quickly to check the pulse of their most important stakeholders, employees.

Jarring events can be traumatic for employees to process and cope with and it is natural for many to look to leadership for clarity. When leaders are bold, proactive and tapped into the sentiments of their people, they can strengthen (or build) community and demonstrate a supportive culture. In the wake of the Capitol incident, many leaders are using this opportunity to help heal and listen. When there is a rift of viewpoints, leaders can be the bridge to understanding, balance and more open and honest dialogue. Working in tandem with leadership, communicators can be the catalyst for this effort. Leading with empathy, compassion and authenticity in moments of crisis will undoubtedly yield positive, long-term results that will have a far-reaching impact long after the crisis "dust" has settled.

As communicators, we must remember our duty to disseminate truth in a timely manner and engage in transparency. The responsibility to our public is to act morally, ethically and with civility. These events can be controversial, messy, uncomfortable and there can be a backlash. But we must listen, build community and use our analysis to help us shape strategy and stand ready for what lies ahead.