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. These prior relationships and contacts make communicating during a crisis so much more effective.
Usually around two thirds of all corporate crises ‘smolder’ beforehand, according to the records of the US Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), which has been analyzing international press coverage of crises for more than 30 years. This means crises have developed comparatively slowly and should be identifiable along the way. Most such crises are caused by mismanagement – when problems have been allowed to fester. Communicators should plan for these eventualities. Nevertheless, sudden crises in 2020 accounted for more than 50% of the stories ICM tracked.
Cybercrime and mismanagement usually account for the largest segments of crises, but suddenly the picture changed. COVID-19 struck in 2020, and its variants continue to cause havoc around the world. The pandemic is classified as a catastrophe, and so you can see from the two charts below that catastrophes, including natural disasters, accounted for 37% of crises in 2020, while previously significant categories like cybercrime, discrimination, mismanagement and labor disputes plunged in 2020 compared with the previous two years.
Images: Institute for Crisis Management.
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. Stakeholders can be assessed and prioritized according to their impact on the organization. This will enable you to communicate better during a crisis.
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. Use of social media should be part of this at the appropriate time.
Audiences to a crisis will immediately form a perception about the content of your organization’s messages in these ways:
As noted earlier, the worst mistake you can make in a crisis is to allow management to be seen as cold, heartless and calculating. People will accept mistakes if only management can admit to being less than perfect. A heartless company is not forgiven. Spokespersons can express sincere regret about an incident without admitting any legal liability.
Communication in a crisis should follow the principles of risk communication:
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 video use on the web 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.
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 (although you can buy a recharger to use in your car).
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 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. This applies to communities facing the threat of emergencies like bushfires, cyclones and floods, for instance. Effectively communicating during these crises is vital.
Social media have proven value for crisis communication. 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. It must be noted that as many stakeholders as possible should have access to particular social media channels that may used by authorities to convey crisis information.
When time is not a factor, alternative forms of delivery should be used. Overnight delivery 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, 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.
My article, “Plan stakeholder communication for crises,” is also suggested for further insights about preparing for crises.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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