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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.

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.

Two thirds (67%) of all corporate crises have ‘smoldered’ beforehand, according to the Institute for Crisis Management. This means they have developed comparatively slowly and should be identified along the way. Most such crises (about 22% in 2018 ) are caused by mismanagement – when problems have been allowed to fester. Communicators should plan for these eventualities. Environmental damage and catastrophes are usually perceived as the main cause of crises, but they only comprised about 11% of the typical corporate crisis in 2018.

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.

Image: Institute for Crisis Management.

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.

How audiences perceive messages in a crisis

Audiences to a crisis will immediately form a perception about the content of your organization’s 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 be an indicator to stakeholders and the public as to 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 the audience is not aware of the organization responding to the event then as far as they are concerned, the organization is not responding. The audience will lose confidence and management will always be attempting to catch up 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. The 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. As with risk communication, 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. Empathy and caring should be expressed in the first 30 seconds. Research shows that being perceived as empathetic and caring provides greater opportunity for the message to be accepted by the receiver. 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, it is recommended that a third party who has the confidence of the audience, express their confidence in the spokesperson and/or the organization.
    • Honesty and openness. Convey all the relevant information. If the 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. Resolution and follow-up should be committed to from the start and maintained until the end.

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.

Guidelines for effective crisis communication

Communication in a crisis should follow the principles of risk communication:

  • 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.
  • 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 more. Describe that process in simple terms.
  • Give anticipatory guidance. If you are aware of future negative outcomes, let people know what to expect: “We won’t be able to get access to the bodies until tomorrow 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. 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:

  • “We are sorry the event happened, we are extremely concerned, and we are doing everything possible to contain the effects of the crisis. (Even though “we regret the incident…” is an alternative term, it is a bit formal and tends to evoke legalistic connotations. It is not as apt as ‘sorry’.)
  • Existing emergency/safety/environmental procedures are satisfactory.
  • Not all the relevant details are to hand 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.]
  • The organization 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 the organization’s actions.

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.

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 (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.

Social media valuable in crises

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.

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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