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Crisis Communications: A Tale of Two Cities

Posted By Scott Thomsen, Friday, October 6, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

By Kathryn Stokes, NAGC President

NAGC President Kathryn Stokes

Crisis communications planning has never been more important than it is today. The proliferation of social media has the ability to turn any event into an out-of-control news cycle in the blink of an eye. Social media may not be the culprit, but more often these days, groups use the tool to spark interest in an event, which may garner attention beyond their expectations. How well a community or agency plans for such unintended consequences distinguishes how they respond in the eyes of the world. Let’s look at two different scenarios and each community’s response and the aftermath.

If you attended the NAGC Communications School in June, you had the chance to hear Mark Basnight speak about the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting in Charlotte, N.C., that left one person dead, several injured, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

Mark Basnight

The response by the City of Charlotte was the definition of what NOT to do in an emergency. The city police department did not cooperate with the city communication department or the mayor’s office. They also refused to release the officer dash cam video, which ultimately supported the officer’s actions. That refusal, fueled by a social media campaign from the victim’s family, lead to days of rioting, numerous injuries, and damage to businesses and private property. Charlotte, N.C., needs to take a page from the Charlottesville, Va., playbook, because if anything in known in today’s world, it is that nothing happens in a vacuum and history does repeat itself.

By comparison, Charlottesville’s response in the wake of the tragic situation that occurred in August of this year is the kind of crisis communication response we all hope to replicate. The city expected a pro-nationalist march, and planned for the event. They knew it was going to be a large gathering, but did not know how large. City officials did not expect someone to use their car as a weapon, which killed one person and injured dozens; however, they planned for what they thought would be the worst-case scenario.

Because the City of Charlottesville partnered with officials from the local university, the county and the state ahead of the march, they were prepared when the march turned violent. Miriam Dickler, director of communications for the City of Charlottesville said, “The partnerships we have built over the past few years allowed us to communicate with one voice throughout the event. We practiced for such an event trying to imagine the worst, and planning how we would respond.” In a six hour period, their worst-case scenario played out for the world to see, capped off by the crash of a state police helicopter, which killed two troopers. They never anticipated that.

According to Dickler, the partnering communication professionals set up a Joint Information Center (JIC) in advance of the planned march. One of the primary functions of using a JIC is to determine who will be the primary spokesperson, and to identify all the roles and responsibilities ahead of time. In addition to the authorized spokesperson, identify a set of messages ready to go to when necessary. Setting up templates ahead of time expedites the communication process, something Dickler and her partners credited with helping them control the story.

Using a JIC, from which all communication flows, and where all participating organizations have access to the same information, is a good way to ensure accurate and timely information is presented to the media. It also helps minimize rumors. The worst thing that can happen during an emergency is to have too many chiefs wrangling for media attention with conflicting messages, such as the case during the North Carolina event.

Charlottesville city officials got in front of the story and stayed visible throughout the situation. They spoke with one voice and they controlled the story. Charlottesville did not have the days of rioting after their event like what occurred in Charlotte.

As government communicators we have only one choice when considering the unexpected events that might affect our communities, and that choice is to plan, plan, and plan. In addition to planning, practice is critical. The best way to confirm that your plan works is to practice it. Be sure crisis communication is part of your agency’s Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and insist that communication is one of the components tested each year.

This tale of two cities contrasts communication approaches, which exemplify the best and worst ways to react during any crisis situation. It is no longer a matter of ‘if’ we have to communicate during a crisis but ‘when’ will have to do so and how can we be most effective. Adopting lessons learned from peers is the best way to ensure we respond like Charlottesville, with one voice, in a timely fashion, and by controlling the narrative.

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Members Seeking Members

Posted By Kathryn Stokes, Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

 You asked and we responded. A few months ago, I got an email from a member who thought it would be a good idea for NAGC to have a map so members could locate other members near them.  I thought that was a great idea.  

Now you can check out to see if there are any NAGC members close to you with our new map feature.  The feature is available in the Members Only section of our site, and allows you to see where members are located and who they are.



I hope you find this tool helpful in getting to know members located near you.  As always, we want feedback.

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Success in St. Louis, 2017 Communications School a Gateway to Professional Development

Posted By Kathryn Stokes, Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

Another year and another Communications School has come and gone.  St. Louis turned out to be a great option for this year’s school, as we had a fantastic host committee that set up some pretty special after-hours activities. I want to extend my sincere thanks to Marisa Ellison for leading the Missouri host committee.

Our pre-conference workshops were well-received with Chris O’Neil’s “Communication Planning: Defining Success and Setting Goals” session and the “Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) Bootcamp” by Laura Kirkpatrick and Ann Knabe garnering lots of kudos from attendees who completed our post-school survey.

The most informative piece was Chris O’Neil’s pre-conference workshop. It was well-paced, and packed with much applicable tips.

I found the APR Advanced Training Workshop very helpful. The speakers were great. I look forward to working on my APR accreditation this year.

Each year, our school planning committee reviews the surveys and we pay close attention to what our attendees find helpful and what other topics they want to see in the future. This year’s agenda was packed with breakout sessions based on feedback from surveys submitted after last year’s school. 

We also got great feedback regarding our keynote speakers. This year’s keynotes included a report on how the people of St. Louis came together to re-imagine the famous arch; a talk on why social media is bullshit; a case-study about communication in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting in Charleston, South Carolina; and seven vertical lessons on leadership.  All were well-received.

Awesome keynotes this year!

This year, the “keynote” speakers were some of the best ever.

NAGC is already gearing up for next year’s school, and the board has already reviewed the comments from this year’s post-school survey. 

I wish the conference started off by identifying which attendees were with federal, state, or local government.

Great suggestion! The board has already identified a way for attendees to recognize who is federal, state, local, tribal or other, for next year’s school.

I felt like most of the people who spoke were with the federal government and forgot that there were other types of government professionals at the event.

We often have federal government people speaking at the school.  That is not by design.  Each year, NAGC puts out a call for speakers. In fact, we will issue a call for speakers for next year’s school in August. NAGC’s budget limits what we can pay for speakers and sometimes we must eliminate options that may be great, because they are just too expensive. We get a lot of speaker abstracts from federal government communicators, which gives a large pool from which to select. We would LOVE to get more speaker abstracts from more local and state folks. So, if you have a good story to tell that may be of interest to other NAGC members, feel free to submit an abstract for review.  Based on this year’s feedback, we will be looking for speakers with expertise in speechwriting, press release writing, video production, crisis communication, communication planning and internal communications, just to name a few.

For the first time, NAGC created a mobile app for the 2017 Communications School.  We used the free version of Guidebook to set up the app, which included the full school agenda and offered the ability for each person who downloaded the app to create their own schedule from the agenda.

I loved the mobile application! It would have been much more difficult to stay organized without it. Venue and geographical location were good.

 Each year, your NAGC Board of Directors seeks ways to enhance the member experience.  According to you, the school is one of the offerings most recognized as a member benefit.  Also, high on the list of what is important to our members are networking opportunities, professional development and our webinars.

Some members recommended, and I concur, that online networking would be helpful.  I have asked our web designer to look for options that will allow our members to network online via our website. 

Bethany Hornbeck, our Professional Development Director, is hard at work planning our monthly Webinar Wednesday series for the upcoming year.  In addition, she is bringing back last year’s popular Encore webinar series that highlighted some of the most popular breakout sessions at the school. And, we already have our first NAGC member who has signed up to sit for the APR exam!

We are listening to your suggestions and are working to put as many of them into practice as is possible.

As we put this year’s school in our rear view mirror, we are looking ahead to Fort Meyers, Florida in 2018.  The exact dates and venue will be announced soon.  So send us suggestions for the school or submit a speaker’s abstract to present at the school, but be sure to attend.  We will have fun, and we will network, and we will learn!

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NAGC — Who We Are

Posted By Kathryn Stokes, Friday, April 14, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

By Kathryn Stokes, NAGC Board President

           The National Association of Government Communicators is a unique organization because it embraces all levels of government communications and all categories of communication professions.  But since I have been on the board, one perception I have consistently heard, is that NAGC is a federal-centric organization.

            As a state employee, I have not personally felt that NAGC has a federal slant.  I admit that I’ve only been a member for about nine years, which is almost as long as I’ve been a government employee. Since my first Communication School in Albuquerque, I have felt accepted and I have found the NAGC to be a great organization with amazing members who are always willing to help me whenever I needed guidance.

            The federal-centric perception prompted me to review our members to discern our government-level distribution. Currently, 57 percent of NAGC members are state, local, tribal or regional government communicators. Our federal members account for 37 percent of our membership, and the rest are a combination of retirees, non-government employees and student members.

            In response to the membership distribution, we sent out a survey in February to determine locations for future communication schools. We were interested to see if our state-local membership distribution impacted desired school locations. The short answer was, not much.

            NAGC consists of communication directors and managers, public information officers, outreach and engagement officers, digital strategists, graphic designers and a plethora of other titles that describe what we do.

            I cannot say why the NAGC is perceived as a federal organization, except that it was started by federal government employees. But as government operations changed, and as communication has changed and evolved, our membership base has shifted away from federal employees. I have seen incredible camaraderie among the government communicators clustered in the greater District of Columbia area. As a state government communicator, I can understand the desire to connect with local peers.

            My goal as president of NAGC is to make our organization a community of peers, no matter where we are located or for which government entity we work. I welcome any suggestion for how to successfully accomplish this goal, no matter if the suggestion comes from federal, state, local, tribal or any other government communicator.

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NAGC Board Seeks Member Input

Posted By Scott Thomsen, Friday, March 31, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019
Photo of Board President Kathryn Stokes.

NAGC Board President Kathryn Stokes

One of my goals as president of NAGC is to make sure members have a voice in how the board manages your association. Members who responded to past surveys indicated it would be great to know a couple of years in advance the locations for our communication school.  That is one reason we asked for member feedback on where future communications’ schools should be held. By June of this year I hope to announce the locations for the 2018 and 2019 communication school.

Your current Board of Directors is the most engaged that I have worked with in my six years on the board.  I am very fortunate to have such a talented and vocal group of people dedicated to making NAGC the best association for government communication professionals at any level of government and in any practice of our profession.

Each of us on the board has a specific professional experience and we all have ideas about what will work best for NAGC.  We want and need to hear what you want and expect for your membership dollars.  This lets us know if we are heading down the right path or if we need to change direction.

NAGC members have historically said they found great value in the networking opportunities afforded by NAGC membership.  Our primary options for networking have been in Washington or at the Communication School.  Since the majority of our members are located outside the national capital region, I want to know how we might enhance our networking efforts for those of you who live in areas without large concentrations of NAGC members? 

One member asked if we can put a GIS map on our new website that would show the location of our members. The board thinks that’s a neat idea and we’re working to find a way to make it happen.  If any of you have that expertise and would like to help, we’d very much welcome your assistance.

I, and my fellow board members, are here to serve you and to help make the NAGC a vibrant and valuable association for government communicators.  Like all great institutions, our association is only as good as we – all of us – make it.  So please share with us your ideas about how we can improve your NAGC member experience

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Call for Speakers — 2018 Communications School

Posted By Scott Thomsen, Friday, March 31, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

Our call for speakers is closed for this year’s Communication School in St. Louis. However, if you are interested in speaking at the 2018 Communication School, let us know and we will notify you when we put out our Call for Speakers for 2018.   We will announce the location for the 2018 school in a few weeks.

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Standing for our Ethics, Advocating for Our Profession and Our Members Amid a Turbulent Transition

Posted By Chelsea Firth, Monday, February 6, 2017
Updated: Sunday, June 30, 2019

An open letter to our members:

Dear colleagues,

As you probably know by now, the NAGC issued a news release last week reiterating the Code of Ethics for professional government communicators. The NAGC motto of “Good Communication … Good Government,” is more than just a tagline for members of our association. The motto speaks to the core of what our association stands for, what we as members and professionals stand for. Last year, the NAGC updated its bylaws and adopted a new mission statement, which is:

The National Association of Government Communicators is dedicated to advocating, promoting and recognizing excellence in government communication. NAGC is dedicated to providing opportunities for individual professional development and career advancement, enhancing effective communication with constituents, and advancing the profession of government communication.

Our news release is not a political statement, but rather a means to promote the expertise and assistance our NAGC members can provide the new administration’s transition teams in reprioritizing their messages and creating effective communication strategies. The release also served as a means by which the association could advocate for our members, who may be having difficulty navigating the transition.

Our release was not the first time the association spoke out on the topic of transition. Our president-elect penned a blog post on the topic of transition in all levels of government and NAGC recently hosted a Webinar Wednesday session on “The Essential Role of Career Government Communicators During Transition.” It and our other webinars, which are free to our members, are posted on our website at In addition, the NAGC board of directors is available to assist members with specific issues, if necessary.

Finally, the news release reiterates to the media that as professional government communicators, “we believe the truth is sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service.” We also believe that the public has the right to know what policies, services, and programs are being implemented by the agencies using their tax dollars, and that need is met by government communicators like you.

Change is always difficult. The orderly transition of power from one administration to the next is no different. However, I believe that when new people coming into an agency reach out to the experts within the agency, the challenges become opportunities, and everyone, especially the public, wins.

  • NAGC President Kathryn Stokes

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