Crisis communications is usually linked to critical incidents. However, savvy communicators know advance preparation and timely response is just as vital for crises that unfold in slow motion, then explode.
Invasive species in forests and lakes, gradual erosion of beachfronts, increasing gun violence, the opioid epidemic and silently decaying building foundations are examples of slow-motion crises. Unlike a train derailment, environmental spill or ill-advised social media post, slow-motion crises don’t always crest in a cathartic moment. They may be vaguely apparent, yet still relatively invisible until their fallout becomes undeniably obvious, demanding a crisis response.
It’s convenient, even comforting, not to think of slow-motion crises as crises, but rather as problems to study further, to address in the future or to blame someone else for causing. However, when the tipping point occurs, that slow-motion crisis suddenly becomes a fast train. Just ask the owners of condominiums in Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida and Miami-Dade County’s new mayor.
After the rubble is sorted, bodies recovered and structural engineers analyze the debris, there will be a reckoning. Maybe more than one reckoning. Did the building contractor skimp on rebar? Did condo owners procrastinate on repairs? Did safety inspectors overlook visible evidence of structural decay? Are there other 40-year-old buildings in Surfside at risk of a similar fate?
Lawsuits and countersuits are inevitable. Crisis communication preparation and crisis media training should be obvious, not optional.
Tragedy can summon the better angels of people, like the first responders who risked their own lives to search for survivors and the thousands of people who have donated millions of dollars to help displaced condo residents find housing and resume living after losing a lifetime of possessions. Tragedy also can bring out the best instincts of men and women under stress who are expected to talk intelligently and empathetically about the tragic events and their aftermath.
For days, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who has been in her job just a few months, has dished out grim news to the media, briefed anxious family members and overseen precarious search and rescue operations at Champlain Towers. Late last week, she faced a consequential decision – should the still-standing part of the Towers be demolished to make it safer for rescue teams to do their job? And, should the demolition occur immediately before Tropical Storm Elsa arrived?
The collapsed tower may have been a slow-motion crisis, but the decision to demolish the remainder of the structure was more like a fast-train crisis. According to other local officials, Cava initially nixed the demolition. The same officials credited Cava for changing her mind after listening to counsel. Rescue operations were hampered because a third of the rubble pile was inaccessible near the structural columns of the remaining tower. Strong tropical winds could unpredictably topple the exposed portion of the remaining tower, endangering other nearby structures. With her approval, demolition experts took down the remainder of Champlain Towers on Sunday.
Cava has exhibited strong qualities as a leader and crisis communicator. Amid the crisis, she took a stand against demolishing the remaining tower, but she was willing to hear and heed arguments for a different position. She has made sure that family members are consulted and get updates before the news media or general public. When speaking to the media, Cava talks about the heroism of the rescue teams, the grieving of family members and the generosity of people who have offered a helping hand. She even mentioned the extra effort to search for pets in the standing tower before it was demolished.
Cava speaks clearly, openly and empathetically. She does everything that a crisis communication trainer would recommend. As more bodies are recovered and structural evidence uncovered, Cava also has demonstrated positive traits for communicating during a slow-motion crisis. She voices patience with a process that is painstaking and unavoidably slow. She remains positive. She keeps the focus on dealing with the crisis, not speculating on what caused it or scapegoating who may have caused it.
Would-be crisis communicators couldn’t study and emulate any better example of pitch-perfect effectiveness than Cava’s performance following the Champlain Tower collapse. Here is how Cava describes her role:
“I am responsible for what’s happening on this site. It is my obligation to report the hard news. Then, others who have technical information, they provide it to back it up. But it’s my job to give the bad news.” The day she spoke those words, Cava announced four additional confirmed deaths, including the death of a 7-year-old daughter of a firefighter.
In addition to becoming a familiar face on national television, Cava is demonstrating leadership. She gave the order to demolish the remaining tower and has ordered an audit of aging buildings in Dade County, which already has led to the evacuation of another condo tower in Miami Beach.
Mayor Cava brings a rare mix of background, skills and experience to her new job and the sudden role of crisis communicator. She was born in New York and raised for a period of her childhood in Latin America. She took her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale, then earned a law degree and a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. Cava moved to South Florida in 1980 along with husband, a Miami native who is a medical doctor.
Cava has been a social activist for 40 years. She has represented children with special needs, children in the welfare system and immigrant families. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, she was recruited to assist in handling child abuse cases and restoring families to homes that had been devastated. In 1996, Cava founded Catalyst Miami that assists 5,000 low- and middle-income families every year to become self-sufficient and civically engaged. Since then, she has chaired the South Florida Regional Planning Council and served on the boards of the League of Women Voters, the Orange Bowl and the Florida Bar Committee on Legal Needs of Children.
Cava, a Democrat, was first elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018 to the Miami-Dade County Commission, representing District 8. She was elected last November as the first female mayor of Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest county.