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Communicating during a crisis
By Kim Harrison,
Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com
Organizations can withstand crises better if they have established sound, long-term relationships with stakeholders, the people and organizations who are at risk from the decisions and actions of the organization. No organization has enough resources to engage in the ideal two-way symmetric dialogue with every stakeholder, so management needs to allocate resources in priority order. Stakeholder relationship management should be a priority task of management. Stakeholders can be assessed and prioritized according to their impact on the organization.
One important fact to remember is that public companies – those listed on the Stock Exchange – are obliged to follow the rules of their home exchange in releasing information into the public arena. All information that relates to the financial performance of the company has to be announced simultaneously to shareholders through the exchange, analysts, the media and other stakeholders. By definition, a crisis will have a bearing on the future financial performance of a company, so crisis communication plans should make full allowance for releasing information to interested parties simultaneously.
How audiences perceive messages in a crisis
Audiences to a crisis will immediately form a perception about the content of the organization’s messages in these ways:
As noted earlier, the worst mistake an organization can make in a crisis is to allow its management to be seen as cold, heartless and calculating. People will accept mistakes if only the organization can admit to being less than perfect. A heartless company is not forgiven. A company can express its sincere regret about an incident without admitting any legal liability.
Guidelines for effective crisis communication
Communication in a crisis should follow the principles of risk communication:
Prepare messages in advance
A crisis jams up every action into an urgent time frame. There is not enough time to perform actions properly. Therefore it makes sense to do as much preparation in advance as possible. One of the crucial communication tasks is the preparation of holding statements in the initial stages while waiting for more definitive information to come to hand. This task can be helped immeasurably by preparing a sizeable proportion of such statements ahead of time from a standard format. Several versions of a statement can be prepared for adaptation as required. It is surprising how much of a statement can be written, leaving only a few spaces that need to be filled in. The statements mustn’t contain any inaccuracies or speculation. They should just state the known facts and incorporate these key messages:
Some people are concerned that saying sorry and expressing regret will leave them exposed to possible legal action. There is no legal liability incurred in saying sorry – and aggrieved people will be much more forgiving than if a stiff, legalistic response is given in public.
Positive background material (for TV as well print media) prepared in advance may cover safety procedures, operational processes and corporate detail. Spokespersons should be prepared to say good things about the organization, its products or services, safety record, audits, management and the organization’s previous record. If they don’t, nobody else will.
Establish independent message distribution
When a crisis occurs, it is too late to find out that the logistics for good communication are lacking. If the power goes off, most means of communication come crashing to a halt. Even cell phone towers need power, and cell phones themselves need recharging. Crisis communicators need to think through the various options for communicating with key stakeholders in adverse times ranging from natural crises like earthquakes and fires to man-made crises like the fruits of terrorism and computer crashes, especially when power cuts occur. If your organization doesn’t have a back-up generator, find out someone conveniently located who does and perhaps come to an agreement with them about using it in a crisis. And it is no good being able to use electricity to continue communication with stakeholders if those stakeholders themselves are out of contact or have no back-up generators.
When time is not a factor, alternative forms of delivery should be used. Overnight delivery and faxes can be used for small, important groups such as board members, politicians, government regulators and key shareholders, when urgent delivery isn’t necessary. Consider direct mail, Faxstream, 1800 numbers, Web pages, regional meetings or advertisements for larger, more diverse groups such as customers and employees. Test company messages with focus groups or telephone research where there is time, eg in a takeover offer.
About the Author
Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.
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