Crisis Communications 101 with Courtney Jolly

As Director of Public Relations and Marketing for Naples Zoo, Courtney Jolly is an expert at responding swiftly and effectively to crises. In her more than seven years with Naples Zoo, she has learned valuable lessons about crisis communications and gladly shares them with fellow members of the zoo community. 

“Crisis Communications is one of the most important things that you can prepare yourself for as a marketing or public relations professional in the zoological industry,” Jolly says. “You have to do everything you can to be prepared so when that phone call happens, you’re ready.” Here is Jolly’s step-by-step guide to developing a successful crisis communications plan for your facility:

  • Get Your Plan on Paper

If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, start there – get it on paper! If you’re not sure where to begin, reach out to colleagues and other facilities. The zoological community is small and tight-knit, and people will likely be happy to share their crisis communications plans with you. Whoever you have to reach out to, be sure to get that plan in place.

  • Review Your Plan with Your Team

Once you have your crisis communications plan crafted, review it with everyone on your team. You might want to consider sharing it out at an all-staff meeting or sending it out via email so that everyone has an awareness of how the chain of command goes in case of a crisis situation.

  • Take the Plan to the Community

Once your plan has been approved internally, it’s time to take it out into the community. You need to reach out to the community partners who will be involved in response in case of a crisis. “When I first started at the zoo seven years ago, I made it a point to go and meet with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and sit down and talk with their public relations team,” Jolly says, and she encourages her fellow public relations professionals to take similar initiative in their communities.

  • Build a Relationship with Local Responders

While it is important to establish those connections with the public relations staff at your local police and fire departments, the work isn’t done after that initial outreach. It is crucial to continue developing repertoire with those offices and officials. “Having a strong relationship with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has helped us to get information out to the public in a more timely manner, and their team has been an incredible support during incidents,” Jolly says. It’s important for your facility to cultivate those relationships, as well.

  • Keep Everyone Connected

Crisis communications efforts frequently require keeping a web of people in the loop, not just one or two. Once you’ve developed the necessary working relationships with local police departments, sheriff’s departments, fire departments, and other relevant partners, you need to ensure that public relations professionals at your facility have a way to stay connected with them. “Make sure that they have those connections ahead of time so that when those phone calls need to happen, they know who to call and when to call. That’s a big part of your crisis communications plan – those phone numbers should be included. Senior managers, supervisors, and anyone who has a role in safety planning needs to have their contact information listed in that plan.” Plan to review these phone numbers on at least an annual basis, as turnover happens – you don’t want to discover that your contact at the fire department is no longer working there in the midst of a crisis.

  • Get Involved with Safety Training

Something that can help a PR professional prepare to respond appropriately to a crisis is to learn more about their facility’s safety training and protocols. “Learning about what actually happens when a crisis arises will help you be more prepared and ready to take on and control that narrative when it gets into your media outlets,” Jolly says. Here are some ways that you can get more involved with safety at your facility:

  • Organize a meeting between your facility’s public relations/marketing and safety/security departments. This will create an important opportunity for both departments to discuss protocol and expectations in the event of a crisis. As a PR professional, Jolly emphasizes that “you need to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and who’s in charge of those things in case of an emergency.”
  • Participate in Incident Command System (ICS) training if your facility offers it, or take it on your own if possible. Many facilities use ICS to organize a response to a crisis and create a chain of command, and understanding how ICS works will provide you with a frame of reference as you share information about a response out to the public.
  • If your facility is a member of AZA, ask if you can sit in on a Safety Committee meeting or get more involved so you can learn about current topics and initiatives in that space.

Courtney Jolly is the Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Naples Zoo in Naples, Florida. Thank you to Courtney Jolly and the Naples Zoo for their contributions to this piece.