How to communicate during a crisis
Crisis management is a tough, chaotic, and sometimes unjust discipline. It has become so much harder to perfect, as a wave of information technologies have made us more interconnected. This means that the external environment puts a lot of pressure on organizations because information moves fast and everything is intercepted, giving the organization less time to react. How do we as organizations see the potential crisis in our external and internal environment? And how should we communicate when the crisis is upon us?
Dealing with issues
Issue management has various different definitions in mainstream literature. Howard Chase defines an issue as ”an unsettled matter, which is ready for decision”. By Chase’s definition, I view an issue as when we acknowledge the risk of a situation or event that has the chance to evolve into something that can hurt the organization.
I think it should be seen as a fine balance between the organization’s behavior and the expectations of the stakeholders: Do they view our method of work, the handling of a certain situation, or general work ethic as appropriate?
The traditional discipline of issues management seeks to balance the relationship of what an organization does and what the outside world expects it to do. Scanning the external and internal environment is one way to determine issues, but for now, we will look at the consequences of failing to locate issues.
What is a crisis?
If an issue is not seen in time or just not dealt with, it can become vital for the organization, turning into a crisis. The American professor of Public Relations and Issue management, Timothy Coombs, defines crisis as:
"the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders related to health, safety, environmental, and economic issues, and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes."
I want to highlight two important aspects of Coombs’ definition. Firstly, that a crisis is a perception. With the model from before in mind, we need to acknowledge that it is the stakeholders, who determine when an organization has a crisis on its hands, as it is their perception that matters. Secondly, the notion that an event creates negative outcomes for the organization. This is a relatively broad definition, so I would argue that everything related to damaging the organization’s financial value, for instance, dropping stocks, or legitimacy in society, for instance, a falling brand image, are negative outcomes.
Determining the crisis type
So the stakeholders’ perception of what the organization ought to do forms the crisis, but how do some events become decisive in harming the organizational image while others are easily forgotten?
It all comes down to attribution theory, which has its roots in phycology. The theory states that we as people naturally seek out causes to actions, creating responsibility in the process. Therefore, these casual attributions can help us to determine, how bad the crisis really is. Say that an external factor, such as an earthquake, causes a production factory to release dangerous toxins. It would be a crisis for sure, but the stakeholders would be more inclined to attribute responsibility to the natural disaster rather than the organization. On the other hand, if a human error causes the spill, the crisis becomes extremely harmful for the organization, as it originates from within the organization.
So when an issue evolves into a potential crisis, organizations need to ask themselves: Who does the stakeholder hold accountable?
Communicative response strategies
The stakeholder attribution makes the foundation for how the organization needs to communicate during the crisis. With the Situational crisis communication theory, Timothy Coombs argues that there are in fact 4 overall crisis response strategies:
1. Denying strategy: Simply denying responsibility, attacking the accuser, or playing scapegoat.
2. Diminishing strategy: Using inability to control events of the crisis as an excuse or trying to justify the events.
3. Rebuilding strategy: Forming a public apology, and thereby taking full responsibility, or compensating loses for the affected stakeholders.
4. Bolstering strategy: Reminding the stakeholders just how great the organization is or focusing on, how the organization is too a victim of the crisis.
Choosing the right communication approach can be vital in saving revenue and the organizational image, but crisis management of course makes up more than just the reaction, as the discipline is based upon proactivity and consistent work with potential crisis situations. The following are some of my recommendations:
Monitor internal and external environments
Monitoring the environment is key, but it is not enough to look at what the outside world is saying about your organization. As I have argued, the greatest risk lies within internal divergence. Open communication, ethical work surveys, and optimized whistle-blower programs should be established to reinforce cultural alignment - thereby minimizing the risk of any hidden agendas. Furthermore, when dealing with issues, treat them with respect – being aware is better than being taken by surprise.
Build up valuable partnerships
The importance of great media relations should never be undervalued, as they can make your hectic situation easier. The key here is to establish relations before the crisis: For what use are relations during a crisis if you have not established any?
Develop a crisis management plan
Thorough preparation is half the battle. It is impossible to anticipate every crisis scenario, but a plan should nonetheless be made to prepare your organization for the crisis. Who says what to whom and when? Remember to train the scenarios, as it enhances your ability to handle real situations.
Respond quickly, but with care
It is important to respond reasonably quickly, as a great part of the stakeholders will not have heard about the situation. If you stay quiet too long it will have major consequences, as the media can affect the attitude of the stakeholders. Depending on the crisis type (and thereby your communicative approach), state only what you know, without making promises that you cannot keep.
Always keep the stakeholders informed
When the crisis is ongoing the worst thing you can do is to keep the stakeholders in the dark. Your organization should be transparent and update stakeholders when new development emerges. Remember that different mediums should be used toward different stakeholders. You can for instance create a Q&A-page on your website for the costumers, develop and carry out responses to the general public on social media pages or write personal letters to investors.
Remember the internal stakeholder
In crisis situations, we tend to forget to look inside, but the field of internal crisis communication is equally important. Crisis breed concern, so keep your internal messages short and simple.
Communicate with consistency
When choosing your communicative approach it is important that your messages are saying the same thing: The press release cannot say something different to what your public relations officer is telling journalists. Use a “one voice” strategy, so only a handful can make statements when journalists call. In connection with this, have your CEO or local director to face the public. A leadership figure is needed during this period because it stands for control and will also secure the consistency of your communication.
Evaluate your crisis management performance
What did you learn from the crisis? You can execute (focus group) interviews with both internal and external stakeholders to gather information on how you managed the crisis. It will cost a lot of resources, but make you come out stronger in the end. The results of your evaluation should be written down in an executive summary.
“The perception of wrong-doing can be as damaging to public confidence as the wrong-doing itself” – Martin Bell
Further readings: Coombs, W. Timothy (2015): “Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing, and responding”. Benoit, William L. (2015): ”Accounts, excuses and apologies”.