Why crisis communications is important
In an article originally written for for L’Annuaire de la Com in Mauritius, CIPR International Chair Samantha Seewoosurrun looks at why crisis comms is important, what the key elements of a plan are and what can go wrong.
Why is crisis communication important and what are the key components of a crisis communication plan?
Crisis communication is of critical importance to any organisation. Failure to respond adequately to a crisis can lead to lasting reputational damage or, in extremis, even to the collapse of the organisation concerned. As a client facing a crisis said to me recently: “perception is reality”.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ crisis communications plan as every business is different, but there are common elements which should always be included. Some of the key elements are: holding statements to cover a wide range of eventualities which have already been signed off by management; keeping at hand updated media lists and updated lists of company spokespeople in case the usual spokespeople cannot be reached; as well as defining and finetuning protocols for social media usage and responses.
The overarching aim is to have an up-to-date toolkit which can be activated at any time as and when needed. If the business does not have the in-house capability to handle this, then they can turn to external advisers or agencies to prepare it.
When a crisis or some other adverse situation occurs, the natural instinct is to close ranks, work furiously to contain the damage, and set the situation back to normal. Can this approach go badly wrong?
When a crisis occurs, it is important for senior management to hold their nerve and not to panic. They need to look at the bigger picture and be guided by their strategic objectives and not necessarily by their gut reaction. It also depends on the type of crisis at hand, whether it is a corporate or institutional crisis, where there may have been warning signs which can give you the chance to prepare, or whether it is an external crisis, such an accident or emergency situation.
I have seen a number of clients panic about public reactions on social media, with the urge to immediately respond to each and every comment, but I tend to consider that such activity only encourages more comments and that it would be better to channel management energy elsewhere. Offensive social media commentary can often be removed by contacting Facebook or other channels.
What do you think are the biggest mistakes made in risk and crisis communications and how can one avoid them? And what are the biggest mistakes you see people and companies make when dealing with the media?
Lack of preparation is the biggest mistake overall. In the case of corporate crises which may bubble under the surface for some time before breaking in the media, the communications team should prepare their key facts and rebuttal in advance in order to be ready to defend their position and tell their story.
In situations where management cannot provide a full response, they should aim to be as authentic as possible, and to ensure that all representatives are speaking from the same ‘hymn sheet’ with aligned messaging. It is also important to guard against leaks, as these undermines trust in the organisation.
On media engagement, it is always important to ‘make friends before you need them’. Leaders who already have well-established relationships with the media have a much better chance of getting their side of the story across than those who journalists have never seen before.
The management of emergency communications, including working with social media, is crucial in the early part of a crisis event occurring. What are some of the good practices that are being adopted by businesses on this?
Speed is of the essence in emergency communication as people’s lives may even be at risk. One of the good practices I can suggest is the adoption of the CARE principle, as advocated by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), which refers to Concern (being expressed about the situation at hand), Action (conveying the action that is being taken) and Reassurance (taking an empathetic approach to those affected). This approach is taught to the Institute’s members advising companies around the world. In practice it means letting people know as much information as you can, as quickly as you can, to maintain and restore trust. It is extremely important to demonstrate empathy although management may worry about using the word ‘sorry’ as they fear that it amounts to an admission of liability, where legal professionals would need to offer advice.
What is the worst communication mistake you have seen? Why? And what could have been done differently to avoid this mistake?
One of the worst mistakes I have seen in the aviation industry is not being prepared with a ‘dark site’ for tragedies, where the normal website is switched to a page with emergency information for relatives. In March 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed 6 minutes after take off, killing all 157 people on board. I heard about it on the radio and went straight to their website and it was still displaying the home page with special offers.
Employees are a critical stakeholder group that organizations should be mindful of engaging during a crisis. What strategies do you recommend organizations use to keep employees informed and engaged during a crisis? How can leadership be most effective?
It can be extremely stressful for employees to be working in an organisation which is experiencing a crisis. Senior management need to keep employees in the loop with regular information on what is happening, whether by email updates or the holding of ‘town hall’ meetings where employees can ask questions to management. How people manage a crisis internally is a true test of leadership.
What emerging technologies and trends are you seeing within the crisis readiness space?
The CIPR published a report in February which found that there are now 5,800 technology tools with potential applications in the public relations industry, which cover a wide range of areas including research, planning, measurement, content, data and insights, management, reporting and workflow, many of which could be relevant to crisis communications planning and execution. While AI was only found to be present in 2% of the tools surveyed, it has been noted that the range of tools and technologies available has grown rapidly since January 2023, following the launch of the ChatGPT dataset at the end of November 2022.
Technology is clearly here to stay and it will be up to crisis communications practitioners to determine which tools can save them time and add value while they manage the crisis at a strategic level.
You can read the original article here.