Thought Leadership

The Capitol Riots: A Crisis Communication Retrospect

U.S. Capitol

The concept of crisis communications can elicit images of Olivia Pope on the ABC series “Scandal” rattling off a monologue to a slew of reporters. While not quite as cinematic in reality, crisis communications is at the heart of any professional communication enterprise.

The violence in our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 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, then it is important to recognize that there isn’t any shortage of vulnerabilities that could impact this U.S. institution. Those who oversee this magnificent structure understand its critical role — not only in history but also 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 law-enforcement agencies managed the deadly riot, but the optics shared around the world tell a very particular story. In the coming days and weeks, it will become increasingly important to continue to share facts associated with what happened in terms of breaching the Capitol structure.

With this information, it will be the responsibility of the team who oversees the Capitol to assess what happened and how, and 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.

Learning from the crisis

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 on Jan. 6, 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: their 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 riot, 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.

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


Aileen Izquierdo, a crisis communications expert with more than 20 years of professional experience, is chair of the Department of Communication of the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) and Assistant Teaching Professor and Graduate Program Director of the Global Strategic Communications master’s program at Florida International University (FIU).

Heather Radi-Bermudez, APR, is a public relations practitioner with more than 15 years of professional experience and an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Communication of the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) at Florida International University (FIU).

[Photo credit: julian leshay/shutterstock]

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Aileen Izquierdo and Heather Radi-Bermudez, APR

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