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Communicating during a crisis

01 Jun, 2020 Issues and crises

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

 

When you believe your organization is confronted by a crisis, you need to firstly confirm you are dealing with a genuine crisis as opposed to some sensationalist news coverage or a passing social media storm. From a communication perspective, you then need to consider who is most important to reach and what to say to them.

These days more than 70% of organizational crises are predictable – because they are largely created by management’s own actions – or inactions. Over the past decade, this consistent fact has been revealed by the Institute for Crisis Management’s crisis monitoring. Mismanagement is the biggest cause of crises, accounting for around 20-25% of cases of smoldering issues that have erupted into full-blown crises. More in my article, “Causes of organizational crises are so predictable.”

A business crisis is any issue, problem or disruption triggering negative stakeholder responses that can impact on your organization’s reputation, strategic business objectives and viability. Although reputation is a ‘soft’ concept, marketplace realities can mean a reputation is the most important asset of an organization, especially with big brands. There are many cases of public companies losing millions, even billions, of dollars in market value due to loss of reputation resulting from an organizational crisis. Just look at the cases of Boeing, Wells Fargo bank, Facebook, Apple and Google as recent examples. My article, “Social media is causing reputation crises to hit twice as hard,” discusses this in more detail.

No organization can operate successfully without the direct or indirect support of its stakeholders. A stakeholder is an individual or group who can affect or is affected by your organization, strategy or project.  A stakeholder can be internal or external, in a senior or junior role. A stakeholder has a vested interest – ‘a stake’ – in what happens in your organization, and so they have something at risk, and therefore something to gain or lose as a result of your corporate activity. An issue is created when there is a gap between stakeholder expectations and corporate practice and policy as expressed by management and in corporate communication,. Issue management is the process used to close that gap to align the organization more closely with stakeholder expectations.

Develop strong relationships with your key stakeholders

Crisis management is about retaining the support of your stakeholders during tough times. One of the most important things you can do to minimize the odds of a crisis striking and the subsequent impact is to thoroughly review and strengthen your relationships with your key stakeholders during normal business. Investing in the time and resources to establish sound, long-term relationships with these stakeholders will pay off. These are the decision-makers and influencers who have the most impact on the future of your organization.

Stakeholder relationship management should be a priority task. Stakeholders can be assessed and prioritized according to their impact on your organization. No organization has enough resources to engage in a full dialogue with every stakeholder, so you need to allocate resources in priority order. Once you have established a priority list, you need to maintain consistent contact with those people for a positive ongoing relationship. The nature and industry of your organization will be the deciding factor for much of this relationship activity. Top management needs to decide on who takes responsibility for maintaining these relationships and supporting the role. If not, you will find your organization is ill-prepared to minimize the possibility of issues developing into crises.

Actively engaging with all key stakeholder groups is essential. Integrated communication should be undertaken directly with each top-priority stakeholder, and via various communication channels with others. A combination of face-to-face and traditional channels at first should be followed up over time via group updates such as emailed updates, newsletters etc once good relationships are established. Social media updates need to be included. For public crisis decisions and actions, communicators should ensure that every stakeholder group is reached with consistent messaging.

Typical stakeholder groups

  • Adversarial groups
  • Bankers
  • Business leaders
  • Community leaders
  • Consumer action groups
  • Contractors
  • Creditors
  • Customers/clients
  • Directors
  • Employees at all levels and locations
  • External advisers/consultants
  • Financial markets
  • Government regulators and utilities
  • Insurance companies
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Neighboring businesses and residents
  • News media
  • NGOS – relevant
  • Politicians – relevant
  • Shareholders
  • Social media audiences/participants/followers
  • Suppliers
  • Unions

Employees are your most important stakeholder group, so don’t take them for granted or you will regret this during crises. Notice that these stakeholders are invariably much more important in the long run than social media audiences for organizations whose main business is not based on brands.

Integrated communication

Monitoring of the operating environment is a key factor in issue management and crisis prevention. This should involve monitoring of news coverage relevant to your organization, internal feedback from employees and key stakeholders, and monitoring of social media where you can tap into crucial conversations involving your customers, influencers and others about your brand. If you don’t have a brand as such, your organization will at least have a public reputation to maintain.

Use of social media channels like Facebook and Twitter is a valuable way to reach your wider communities and show your desire to communicate with them directly, creating positive dialogue. By developing relationships in social media you can learn to choose the right message, source and timing. The worst time to start planning for a crisis is when you’re in the middle of one. Pre-crisis planning is key to successful social media crisis mitigation. However, speed should not replace overall strategy. Work to the strategy in your public statements.

 

A Census communication team deals with a crisis simulation, ensuring messaging is consistent to key stakeholders

How audiences perceive messages in a crisis

If your organization is hit by a crisis event, your stakeholders will immediately form a perception about the content of your messages in these ways:

  • Speed of communication. First impressions are lasting impressions. Research indicates that the first message received on a subject sets the stage for comparison of all future messages on that subject. The speed with which you issue your first communication can indicate how prepared your organization was to respond to the crisis, that there is a response in hand and the appropriate action is being taken. If people are not aware you are responding to the crisis event then as far as they are concerned, you are not responding. Your stakeholders will lose confidence, and your management will always be attempting to catch up to the perceptions. If social media is an integral part of your initial communication effort, your speedy communication response is much more likely to satisfy the recipients.
  • Factual content of the message. Your audience will be listening for the facts, so you should get the facts right, repeat them consistently and ensure all credible sources share the same facts. Preparation can help to maximize the amount of information that can be assembled and passed on.
  • Trust and credibility. It is vital to establish trust and credibility with your key audiences. There are four basic elements to establishing trust and credibility through crisis communication. People will realize if these elements are faked. All written and verbal messages during a crisis should contain these elements:
    • Empathy and caring. Research shows that being perceived as empathetic and caring provides greater opportunity for the message to be accepted by the receiver. Therefore, empathy and caring should be expressed immediately. Spokespersons should acknowledge fear, pain, suffering and uncertainty if they are genuine emotions.
    • Competence and expertise. Obviously education, position title and organizational roles are quick ways to indicate expertise. Previous experience and demonstrated abilities in the current situation enhance the perception of competence. Another important way is to have established a relationship with part or all of the audience before the crisis. If that isn’t possible, nominate a third party who has the confidence of the audience, and who will express their confidence in your spokesperson and/or organization.
    • Honesty and openness. Convey all the relevant information. If your spokesperson is prevented from passing on certain information then it helps to explain why, eg “We are still verifying the names”, “The police have the role of providing this information” and “We don’t have that information at this stage.” The amount of professional jargon and euphemisms should be minimized; their use implies insecurity, arrogance and lack of honesty.
    • Commitment and dedication. If possible, you should state upfront what the objective is in the crisis and should commit to reaching that objective. Dedication is shown by sharing in the discomforts and the sacrifices being experienced in the crisis. Dedication means management is present at the scene until the situation has been resolved. It means staying in touch with the audience after the media have lost interest. (Remember the worst US environmental disaster in 2010 when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, killing 11 workers – and then BP’s CEO said he wanted his life back – because all this was taking so much of his own time?) Resolution and follow-up should be a commitment from the start and maintained until the end.

The worst mistake you can make in crisis communication is to allow management to be seen as cold, heartless and calculating. People will accept mistakes if management can admit to being less than perfect. A heartless company is not forgiven.

Guidelines for effective crisis communication

Communication in a crisis should follow these principles:

  • Be open, accessible and willing to respond as much as possible to those clamoring for information.
  • Be truthful. Honesty is the best policy both from an ethical point of view as well as from a practical standpoint. People quickly find out about partial truths or cover ups – and they will hate you for it. They hate the cover up more than the original crisis event.
  • Be compassionate, empathetic, courteous and considerate. It’s not easy to do this under pressure when silly questions are asked or repeated, but this patient approach is necessary.
  • Don’t over-reassure. The objective is not to soothe, but to convey accurate, calm concern. In fact, it is better to over-estimate the problem and then be able to say that the situation is better than first thought.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty. Tell only what you know. Show your distress and acknowledge your audience’s distress: “It must be frustrating to hear that we don’t have the answer to that question right now…”
  • Emphasize that a process is in place to learn from the situation. Describe the process so people will be confident you will use the knowledge to prevent or minimize the chances of a similar crisis happening again.
  • Give anticipatory guidance. If you are aware of future negative outcomes, let people know what to expect: “Experts won’t know the full extent of the data leak for another 24 hours at the earliest.”
  • Be regretful, not defensive. Say, “We are sorry…”, or “We feel terrible that…” when acknowledging problems or failures. It is preferable not to use ‘regret,’ which sounds legalistic.
  • Acknowledge people’s fears. Don’t tell people they shouldn’t be afraid. They are afraid and have a right to their fears.
  • Express wishes. Say, “I wish we knew more,” or “I wish our answers were more definitive.”
  • Be willing to address the ‘what if’ questions. These are the questions that everyone is thinking about and they want expert answers. If you are not prepared to answer the ‘what if’ questions, someone else will, and you will lose credibility and the opportunity to frame the discussion.

Prepare messages in advance

A crisis jams up every action into an urgent time frame. I found this to my horror as corporate affairs manager for an electricity utility when a hurricane smashed our offshore natural gas production platforms. Power supply was suddenly threatened because pipelines were no longer connected to the platforms to carry natural gas hundreds of miles to power station turbines generating most of the State’s electricity. Suddenly, our communication staff were overwhelmed by news media urgently wanting to know if electricity supply was guaranteed for the public, industry and hospitals in the next few days.

Even with crises caused by white collar action or inaction, rather than by operational causes, you don’t have enough time to prepare for communication. 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 and adapted 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:

  • “We are sorry this happened, we are extremely concerned, and we are doing everything possible to contain the effects of the crisis.”
  • “Existing privacy/security/emergency/safety/environmental procedures are being reviewed to ensure the interests of our [affected stakeholders] are our priority.”
  • “Not all the relevant details are available at this time. The investigation is under way. A spokesperson will be available to comment and provide an update at [time].” This shows a willingness to provide accurate information openly and regularly.
  • “Management makes no comment on the question of legal responsibility for the incident. That is best left to the proper investigation by the authorities.”
  • Supplement all actions with third-party support where possible. ‘Experts’ can support or explain the context of the crisis and your organization’s actions.

You can say “sorry”

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. It makes you come across as much more human – and aggrieved people will be much more forgiving than if a stiff, legalistic response is given in public, such as “We regret the incident…”

Prepare support ahead of time

Positive background material (for video use on the web and social media as well news media) prepared in advance may cover safety procedures, operational processes and corporate detail. Spokespersons should be prepared to say good things about your organization, its products or services, safety record, audits, management and the organization’s previous record. If they don’t, nobody else will.

The reality is that only about half of organizations around the world have a crisis plan in place, as reflected in Deloitte global surveys representing every major industry and geographic region. Various other business surveys in recent years have found similar results.

Responding to a social media crisis

1. Suspend all regular messaging

Pause all outward content planned for your social media channels. Carefully monitor social media coverage of the crisis event.  

2. Concede publicly that an issue has emerged

Start with a message admitting that a matter has arisen that needs dealing with, even if you don’t have all the facts. This will let your followers know you are aware of the problem and it will give your team time to collect information. If the problem has first arisen in a specific channel like Facebook or Twitter, respond first in that channel. Then decide where to go next.

3. Create a Crisis FAQ page

Decide where you will base your key communication about the crisis. Create a landing page or microsite on your website, or use a single social media channel and put all the core information about the crisis in one place. This allows you to respond to questions with a link instead of an answer. This saves time and prevents misinterpretation of your responses (especially on Twitter). Update all relevant links to point to the crisis FAQ.

This Crisis FAQ should include:

  • Context of what led to the crisis
  • Description of the crisis event
  • Photos, diagrams, maps or videos, if available
  • How you became aware of the crisis
  • Who was alerted, when and how
  • Outline of actions taken in response
  • Real or potential impact to the organization and others
  • Steps taken to prevent or minimize possible future similar events
  • Contact information for spokespersons and nominated decision makers

Speed of response is important. Key internal contacts should be actually be contactable at all times within a few minutes. Test this frequently to ensure this is case. If key contacts are difficult to reach at times, either get them castigated by senior management or change to another contact person.

4. Start responding in social media

Social platforms have enabled the various parties involved in crises – consumers, eye-witnesses, government, regulators, and emergency services – to share images and comments instantly. This has led to dramatically reduced response times. Once the information is collected and a central FAQ hub is functioning, post to all your organization’s active social media accounts providing key information such as:

  • A summary of the situation
  • Link to the Crisis FAQ hub for further updates
  • Relevant hashtags to help communicate information
  • Recommendations to your social media audience on actions to take, eg how to preserve privacy of your information
  • Estimate of when a solution will be in place

Use boosted posts or paid amplification if necessary for the post to reach specific audiences ASAP. Choose a limited duration ad or boost to reach the maximum amount of people in as little time as possible.

5. Keep updated posts together

Use Twitter threads to connect new posts to old posts and use hashtags consistently to spread the messages. Update existing posts rather than create new posts on Facebook. When the crisis is over, ensure your posts clearly communicate this fact to the outside world.

Persuade senior management to approve your crisis communication plan

My article, “How to get senior management to act on your crisis communication plan,” will help you put a case to your organization’s management to commit to the prevention and minimization of issues and crises. This will help to minimize the number of times your organization is obliged to communicate during a crisis.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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