When crisis response goes awry, poor communication is often at fault. Poor communication typically takes any of the following forms:
Effective crisis communication is needed to get things right. Crisis communication consists of the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a given crisis (Page Center Training, Penn State).
Crisis communication itself emerged from the field of Applied Communication. Applied Communication scholarship focusses on the study of a social issue or problem with the primary purpose of identifying solutions and recommendations to address the social issue.[i]
Within the field, crisis communication deals with mediated messages to various types of audiences at moments of heightened pressure.
What then are the relevant strategies needed to ensure effective communications go to relevant audiences during critical events? It all starts with understanding the lifecycle of crisis communications. Like crisis management (more broadly), crisis communication has its own lifecycle, which includes the following stages (Page Center Training, Penn State):
Monitor crisis risks
Make decisions about how to manage potential crises
Train people who will be involved in the crisis management process
Collect and process information for crisis team decision making
Create and disseminate crisis messages
Asses the crisis management effort
Provide follow-up crisis messages as needed
Of course, facilitating information flows, so that crisis decision makers and other relevant stakeholders are armed with the right information at the right time, has been a perennial challenge.
Mitigating the challenge, beyond simply understanding lifecycle of crisis communications, requires business leaders to recognise that knowledge and information are critical resources to the organisation.
Crisis leadership, in turn, can demonstrate the criticality of information by making that information accessible (where appropriate), understandable, and supportive of the organisation’s larger resilience objectives.
All of the relevant crisis management communication strategies should be collated in the crisis management and communication plan, i.e., the set of guidelines and activities used to prepare an organisation for the knowledge-sharing aspects of an emergency or unexpected event. Below are the relevant steps for putting together a best-practice generic crisis communications plan:
Before putting pen to paper on the crisis communications plan, organisations should first consider some critical factors, including the plan’s purpose and its scope. In other words, organisations must lay out what they are trying to accomplish with the plan and what material will be covered in it.
Beyond that, the planning process should also help organisations determine which audiences they are likeliest to communicate with during a crisis. Relevant audiences are likely to include:
As to the form they take, communications plans shouldn’t be treated as standalone plans. Rather, they serve as important supplements (or annexes) to other incident plans and are only activated when the incident in question necessitates communicating.
Organisations must therefore consider the kinds of incidents that typically trigger the need to communicate with the public. Examples might include:
As for the plan itself, it will serve the following functions: (1) outline the protocols to follow in the event of an incident, (2) define the roles and responsibilities of team members, and (3) provide clear action plans for teams to execute.
Key to successful crisis resolution is chain and unity of command. Even in the case of business communication during a crisis, organisations must clarify reporting relationships to eliminate confusion and ensure that everyone is able to control the actions of personnel that is under their supervision.
In crisis management in business communication, the CEO will typically emerge as the premier company spokesperson. Some organisations will tap others to serve in this de facto Public Information Officer (PIO) role. Responsibilities for that role include:
Of course, communications plans don’t just execute themselves even with the best people. Crisis management technology will be needed to establish a process for gathering, analysing, sharing, and managing crisis-related information and intelligence. The specific capabilities that matter include:
Source: A Guide to Effective Incident Management Communications, Carnegie Mellon University
Finally, crisis communication planning is easy to put off, especially for organisations who think crises won’t affect them. But the likelihood of a crisis happening increases by the day.
Senior leaders, as such, must marshal the necessary resources to develop, maintain, test, and periodically update a crisis communications plan.
Indeed, the plan itself helps organisations save time during a crisis, where they will be focused on execution, rather than deciding what to do. Done well, crisis communication can only help organisations better understand the root causes of crisis as well as protect reputation and brand value by imparting relevant information to important stakeholders in as seamless a manner as possible.
Mike Allen, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods: Applied Communication. Available at https://methods.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-communication-research-methods/i1796.xml#:~:text=Applied%20communication%20is%20communication%20scholarship,to%20address%20the%20social%20issue.&text=Applied%20communication%20is%20grounded%20in,a%20focus%20on%20theory%20building.
Published May 19, 2021