Responding to a crisis can make or break an organization. Even the best-run companies can suffer from an unexpected event, such as a viral video from a disgruntled employee, a worker safety incident, or a cyberattack. But how an organization communicates its response to these crises will ultimately shine a light on the business or leave scars on its reputation.
Learning communication strategies to navigate a crisis effectively is important for any organization, whether a corporation, healthcare facility, school, or house of worship. Besides maintaining goodwill among the public, effective communication can also speed up response and recovery and reduce property damage or loss of life. This article will discuss crisis communication, why it is an important and effective ways to use communication strategies to navigate a crisis effectively.
What is Crisis Communication
Crisis communication involves gathering, prioritizing and managing the distribution of information to stabilize and minimize the effects of a crisis on people and organizations.
A crisis communication plan is the response strategy to notify others and how messages will be disseminated when an incident disrupts an organization’s normal course of operations. These plans include identifying an organization’s people, processes and systems that will use the communication strategy to handle a disruption.
Why is it important
Timely communication during a crisis reduces fear and misunderstandings. Crisis communication is vital for minimizing damage to an organization’s reputation, injuries, loss of life and property damage. In addition, communication allows an organization to expedite the response time and keep it running during an unfortunate event.
When an organization delays in responding or does not communicate information during a crisis, it creates uncertainty and possibly anger, which lessens the trust and value it has with people.
For example, in 2011, a B.P. Oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. This resulted in Deepwater Horizon, the largest oil spill in the U.S. and one of the world’s largest environmental disasters in history. In the disaster’s aftermath, B.P. demonstrated several times that its crisis communication plan did not float and left several unfavorable marks on its reputation.
Start with a crisis communication plan
To effectively navigate a crisis, an organization first needs to formulate a Crisis Communication Plan to handle any possible events.
Effective communication strategies start with identifying the stakeholders and forming a crisis management team, or those responsible for creating, managing, executing and evaluating the plan’s effectiveness. The crisis management team should include the following:
- Public Relations executive
- Legal counsel
- Heads of important divisions
- Those who are subject-matter experts in the operations most affected by a crisis.
Not all organizations have the resources listed above. However, small business owners and organizations of any size may need to consider hiring outside qualified consultants to help them with the process. They will benefit greatly from outsiders who can more easily identify weaknesses within an organization.
Next, identify and examine all possible scenarios or an “all-hazards” approach and how the organization will respond to them. Some will be easy to think of, from current operational flaws or a significant weather incident causing property damage, while others are maybe far fetched.
This thorough analysis should shed light on the organization’s vulnerabilities, allowing the crisis management team to prioritize how to respond to the most pressing weak points. For example, many attributed the recent cancellations of several holiday flights by Southwest Airlines to a lack of investment in flight and pilot scheduling technology. Unfortunately, many in and out of the airline knew of this operational weakness before it happened.
Once the team evaluates all possible crises, the team should then build out the Crisis Communication Plan by creating strategies to navigate them. This includes identifying the people responsible for each process, the technology and systems that will be used to execute the plan and communication systems to send and receive communications during a crisis. The plan should also include a training and evaluation plan to improve the processes and systems in the future.
Communication strategies to effectively navigate a crisis
There are several ways to make the communication strategies outlined in the Crisis Communication Plan more effective when navigating a crisis. Below are ways communication strategies during a crisis can be improved.
1. Crisis timeline
Traditionally, crisis management experts relied on the “within the first hour” rule when responding to critical events. However, in today’s instant media world, one hour seems too long. Experts now use the 15-20-60-90 rule for effective crisis communications response time. This rule means:
- An organization needs to release information about an incident within 15 minutes of when it occurred. Often, this announcement doesn’t have much information, but it acknowledges that the organization is aware and will respond accordingly. This quick response builds confidence that the organization is ahead of any developments and will be the point of contact for the event.
For example, law enforcement will notify the public that they know an incident occurred and are looking into the event.
- 30 minutes – Here, an organization will provide more details or information.
- Within 60 minutes, a spokesperson from the company should make an in-person statement, whether on video or via live media interview.
- An organization should hold a press conference within 90 minutes of the event.
2. Communicate honestly, openly, transparently and consistently
Messages during a crisis should be straightforward and speak to the intended audience. Give enough information so people can make informed decisions but avoid too much information that may cause confusion.
The messages should be honest to build and maintain trust. If there is no information available, it is more successful to say there is no information instead of making up something to give a quick answer.
Bernstein Crisis Management states, “Attorneys have also come to understand that, while ‘no comment’ translates as ‘we’re guilty or hiding something’ to the public, there are a lot of ways to say very little without compromising legal matters, while still appearing responsive to those seeking more information.”
Also, avoid inconsistencies in the messaging. Consistent, open and transparent messages will build confidence in the organization during a crisis. A good rule of thumb is to stick to three primary messages that can be adjusted depending on the audience or media requirements.
Some organizations craft possible statements before a crisis hits, so it will be ready to respond as quickly as possible. Of course, it’s difficult to know what crisis will hit at one time, but a quick response is viewed as a positive outreach from the company. These are premade statements, also called “holding statements.” One example of a holding statement could be, “We will share information when it becomes available and post it on our social media and website.”
3. Make the message clear and accessible
When writing communications, make sure the most important information is the first thing readers see. Stay straightforward and keep messages brief.
Accessible language is a term often used to describe writing and speaking in a way the intended audience can clearly comprehend. Messages should be written in clear, plain language and in the spoken language of the intended audience. Ensure the message can be clearly understood by everyone that needs to be informed, but do not talk down to the audience.
Accessibility also means sending messages through channels where the intended audience will most likely receive them. Staff and the public shouldn’t have to ask to see updates. For example, social media may be an outlet more people use rather than a company’s website. Finally, be sure these statements meet the messaging requirements of the chosen media.
4. Build trust before a crisis and maintain that trust during one
The recent crisis of massive flight cancellations by Southwest Airlines may have lost the company thousands of customers. And although the fallout is yet to be fully measured, experts believe the company may recover more quickly than its competition because of the trust and loyalty it built over time among its valuable frequent flyers. Since its inception, the company has built high brand loyalty, demonstrated in its ranking as number one or two in J.D. Power’s North America Airline Satisfaction Study for eleven straight years.
Communication with caring, empathy, trust and loyalty before and during a crisis is one of the best ways to navigate an incident effectively. For example, the recent cardiac arrest of professional football player Damar Hamlin is a good example of how the NFL effectively implemented its communication strategy.
The first priority of the NFL’s emergency preparedness plan was Hamlin’s health and the player’s safety, physically and emotionally. The players were moved into the locker room while emergency responders attended to Hamlin, and the game was canceled. The communications regarding the updates on the player was secondary, although there was a solid communication plan in place.
5. Designate one spokesperson
Choose one or a limited number of individuals authorized to speak on behalf of the organization. These people should be qualified and knowledgeable to take on the job as a spokesperson. Ensure this person(s) can handle speaking and writing to all media types and will represent the organization well.
Always ensure the spokesperson receives the most timely and accurate information, so they are competent and demonstrate expertise.
Keep in mind that even though one person is designated to be a spokesperson, it doesn’t mean that other people in the communications room may grab the ear of the media and change the messages’ intention, whether through a nod, headshake, wink or off-camera comments.
6. Monitor comments
Offer a way for people to submit information regarding the crisis. Most often, critical information that helps speed up a recovery process comes from ground zero. Include a way to capture this information in one source and a method for disseminating the information to the important parties.
Give people choices on how to submit feedback. This will ease employees’ and people’s fear of any negative consequences for turning in important information.
Capturing these comments and information also gives you an inside look into what outsiders are saying about the organization. It builds a window of time to stop any misinformation or negativity against it.
The information received also provides the organization the opportunity to evaluate how the crisis communication worked in real-time, so it can improve its crisis communication plans for future incident management.
7. Communicate using all possible channels
There is no way of knowing where the people who need to hear your messages will be during a crisis because, often, these crises happen at inconvenient times and unlikely places. Therefore, it is imperative to use all methods to effectively send your communications during a crisis.
Don’t overlook the simple methods such as posting a sign on your door stating you are closed for business. More than likely, however, an organization should rely on modern technology to send communications through multiple channels quickly.
A mass notification system like Regroup’s can aid in quickly sending communications through multiple channels. Increasing the response time depends on the right people opening the correct messages in time. This real-time tracking software can also inform the organization that the messages were opened.
A robust mass notification system should have the ability to communicate with your network quickly via:
- Multiple user email accounts, cell phones and landlines
- Social media networks and websites
- Public address and outdoor siren systems
- Digital signage, desktop alerts and beacons
- Security and fire alarm systems
- RSS feeds and cable television
- Private or public message boards and forums
- IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System)
In addition, a mass notification system should include:
- A cloud-based application to ensure messages can be sent and received when there is a power outage, or the network is down
- 24/7 customer support
- Sending messages to a particular area or specific group
- Two-way communication (via a mobile app), so teams can collaborate more effectively to secure an area or coordinate responses from stakeholders.
- Integrated systems to work with digital signage, public address equipment and desktop alerts to quickly notify everyone on site.
- Tools for collecting on-the-scene intelligence to increase situational awareness
- Prebuilt message templates to disseminate messages quickly
- Multi-language capabilities
Navigating a crisis with the communication strategies listed above can improve an organization’s response time, save an organization’s reputation and reduce the chance of property damage and loss of lives.
An organization should first build loyalty and trust and then form a solid communications strategy to handle all possible hazards or incidents. Creating honest, transparent, consistent and quick messages from one authorized spokesperson can also help improve the communication strategies to effectively navigate a crisis.
An essential piece to any communication strategy is the right communications technology. Set up in advance, communication systems will help an organization send and receive important and relevant messages when a crisis occurs.
Mass notification systems like Regroup’s connect messages instantly with the people that depend on you to keep them safe and informed using multiple methods to send messages during a crisis.
You can schedule a no-obligation demo of Regroup’s powerful notification system here.