I will never forget July 8th, 2013. 

But I’m certain it’s also a day that will not be forgotten by my former Metrolinx colleagues, city staff, rescue workers, and the 1,400 people that were trapped on the 5:30 PM commuter GO train, which flood waters quickly submerged after the Don Valley had filled with a torrential downpour.  

Our city is coming up on the tenth anniversary of that July 8th storm that brought with it a month’s worth of rainfall in a matter of hours resulting in severe flooding, power outages and other chaos city-wide. 

At the time, I was in my first year at Metrolinx. But that night, I’d say I learned about a decade’s worth of crisis comms knowledge that I’ve carried with me since. Most specifically, I learned what it meant to have a trauma-informed crisis communications plan. And, regrettably, the fallout that comes from not having one. 

Trauma-informed crisis communications means you think first about and act first with the people most impacted. Having a trauma-informed crisis communications plan is typically a blind spot for many organizations. But that miss can cost them their customers, staff and reputation. 

So here are five areas of any crisis communications plan that organizations should consider updating through the trauma-informed lens. 

  1. The Crisis Plan’s Principles

Many organizations have a crisis communication plan. And that plan is likely deeply embedded into how the organization operates when things go wrong. But a lot of these plans are missing their foundations – their guiding principles.  

Guiding principles outline who the organization wants to be and how it wants to be viewed during a crisis. Similar to a good mission and vision statement, these principles are a decision framework. And the initiatives decided upon from those principles make those ambitions concrete in a crisis communications plan. And this is where the trauma-informed lens can be applied.

For example, if an organization decides one of its principles will be to “communicate with the people most impacted quickly and empower staff to communicate quickly – even when they don’t have all the information,” the communications and media team has to concretely apply that principle across every crisis scenario they practice. In essence, they’ll be rehearsing a trauma-informed thought process that identifies who is most impacted in every scenario and how they can be reached. 

Additionally, all communications teams must include in their plan scenarios where digital communications go down. An organization must be able to implement its plan faithfully to its principles – even when its usual communications tools are damaged or offline. A back-up plan. 

On July 8th, the city was also navigating power outages and system failures while at the same time dealing with other emergencies that had a higher level of potential danger. This all meant a delay in delivering the most important messages to the broader community and there was catch up to do – not ideal. 

During an emergency it is critical that organizations proactively lead the telling of the story rather than reacting. You’ll always be behind rather than in the lead. 


  1. Adapt Your Holding Messages

Time is not your friend in a crisis. You have to say something before others control the narrative. But you might not have all the information. That’s why communications teams perfect their organization’s holding messages and have them ready for spokespeople to use when a crisis hits.  

But organizations can also adapt these messages to be more compassionate, resonant and trauma-informed by crafting them to acknowledge the people most affected. 

Acknowledging impact does not equate to accepting legal responsibility, despite what the lawyers might worry about. When a crisis hits, an organization may not be at fault, but it can – and should – acknowledge the impact and take responsibility for fixing what’s in its control. 


  1. Engaging Proactively With the Media

The media is not your enemy in a crisis; rather, it is your greatest partner for fulfilling a trauma-informed crisis response by getting the message out quickly to the people impacted. So your organization has to give this partner priority. 

The media is not out to write bad stories about your organization during a crisis. Reporters want to write the truth. But if your organization refuses to speak with them, their stories will move forward with other voices, who may or may not have all of the information and may be frustrated by your lack of response. 

During crisis situations, you may be limited in what you can say – but there are always things you can say. Ensure your spokespeople are available and armed with the most recent messaging. Contact media outlets quickly if there’s an error in a story and offer them the correction. And make sure you’re regularly following up with reporters – even if it’s just to say, “I’m sorry, we still don’t have information, but here’s how we’re trying to get it.” 

Transparency, cooperation, and proactivity build up your “goodwill bank” with the media.


  1. Update Social Media Training Pre-Crisis

These next two points focus the trauma-informed lens on your staff. 

Engaging on social media can require a thick skin – some platforms more than others. It’s not always a positive space, but it’s needed in a crisis response. Your customers or key audiences will be on those channels along with millions of others – and if you aren’t there to lead the conversation, others will. 

But the space can wear on your staff. Comments on posts can be racist, sexist, homophobic, threaten violence and more. So organizations must take care of their people, who will have to be on these channels during a crisis. 

A responsible crisis communications strategy will include updated training for staff (prior to a crisis) to ensure they can perform their roles effectively and safely online – knowing how to detect bots, antagonistic accounts or deliberate attempts to spread misinformation. 


  1. Supporting Staff During Crisis

Crisis communications plans should take into consideration the mental health of the staff during the execution. 

Responding to a crisis is usually a long-lasting and stress-filled process. Thousands of customer concerns, questions and complaints were coming on every channel, every hour during the flood of 2013. And dozens, if not hundreds of media requests were also coming in. 

A crisis may involve serious harm, stress, emotional suffering and even loss of life. Organizations need to support their people in charge of receiving, processing and delivering that news to the public. Support can range from designated breaks to mandatory debriefing or counseling if that’s what the situation requires to ensure staff don’t carry trauma forward to the next job. Training and refreshing their training regularly is important before the next crisis hits. 

Additionally, every crisis communications plan should include a post-incident debrief to identify the key learnings – what went well and what didn’t – to better prepare staff and processes for the next time. 


Organizations are up against a lot in 2023 – increased climate events, cybersecurity breaches, the rise of misinformation, “quiet quitting,” losing company knowledge to retirement, and more. But facing a crisis doesn’t have to spell the end for your organization’s reputation. In fact, if you handle it well, it can even strengthen your reputation. If your crisis communications principles are based on transparent, honest, and informative communications and all actions follow through on those principles, people take note – and they remember.  

Almost ten years later, I still hear from the people involved in the Don Valley GO train incident – I still hear about what it was like for them that night. I hear their frustrations. But I also hear incredible stories of their patience, kindness, humour and resilience. 

Their stories and my own learnings from that night remind me of a quote from the Greek Stoic Epictetus:

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

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Image source: toronto.com – Photo/JOHN HANLEY