Establish a Crisis Coverage Plan

All radio newsrooms should prepare for how they will work during an emergency. It should go without saying that radio is crucial to the public welfare during a crisis and you’ll need to give an all-out effort in providing timely, accurate information and assistance. Moreover, as a news department during a crisis, you will either greatly increase or greatly decrease your audience’s opinion of you depending on how well you respond to their needs.

Disaster planning does not have to anticipate all possible scenarios. In fact, it can’t and needs to remain flexible. But it can anticipate levels of response and proscribe basic procedures according to those levels.

Here are some simple steps to preparing your crisis coverage plan:

  1. Appoint or hire someone to head up the effort and be sure to provide adequate time, support and resources to get the plan done. Build in deadlines as though a crisis may be headed your way.
  2. Hold meetings as necessary to collate information, strategies and tactics. Include personnel who can inform the effort or help carry it out. If it is the first time developing the plan, stay focused on the broad outline not the myriad details that can arise.
  3. Write the plan and introduce it to the entire station. Allow for discussion and possible modifications.
  4. Use the plan. When there is an emergency, apply the plan as best you can.
  5. Revisit the plan. Do so as soon after an emergency as you can. If you’ve had no disasters, be glad, but revisit the plan at least once a year anyway. Chances are you’ll be able to improve it just by reconsidering it.

So what goes into a crisis coverage plan? A lot maybe. But here are some of the basics. Consider devoting a page or section to each.

  • Mission. Declare your service intentions and their underlying values for times of crisis. This helps make clear why you’re doing this.
  • Response Levels. Use this 5-tier system but define for yourself what constitutes each level and how you’ll respond accordingly.
    1 — is the lowest level and can be managed using normal format
    2 — requires a heightened response while mostly staying in format
    3 — is a medium-high disaster response and breaks format as necessary
    4 — is a high level response but limited in its duration
    5 — is the highest level response and is on-going.
  • Command Structure. Decide in advance who is in charge during a crisis, and what other command roles are necessary for decision making. Often the News Director takes the lead here. Also think about how the plan may connect with city or county disaster preparedness efforts.
  • Programming Procedures. Decide in advance who may be where and doing what to deliver news programming in a crisis. Account for on-air and on-line. The higher the level, the more challenging the response will be. Level 5 may require hours of non-stop coverage. Consider media sharing opportunities and network relations.
  • Operations & Infrastructure: Review your information systems, your communications, your back-up power and transmission facilities. Decide in advance what roles are necessary to support field and studio programming efforts. Discuss roles for all station personnel should a level 4 or 5 crisis require an entire chain of activity.
  • Plan Practice & Upkeep: Assign a keeper of the plan and articulate the process you’ll use to revisit the plan or practice it.

You’ll scale your disaster plan to your station and market… but the bigger the disaster, the bigger the challenge no matter your resource level. Consider sharing resources at higher levels.

As most recent disasters have proven, radio is still the premiere information source — but low cost digital technologies offer new paths for delivery and all paths are crucial in a disaster.

NPR and NFCB collaborated to create a crisis planning toolkit for small stations. See the SAFER site.

Also see: Samples → Crisis Coverage Plan Template