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  • Writer's pictureStavros Papagianneas

Communicating Crisis

Around the world, organisations and governments are becoming increasingly focused on crisis management and crisis communications. The emphasis on crisis management is driven by the perception that both: frequency of crisis and impact are growing.

There have been times in history when people have been thrust into very intense crises and surprised the world with their determination, remarkable courage and leadership.

The invasion of Ukraine is one of those times. And the charismatic President of Ukraine Zelensky is one of those people. His remarkable success in leading his country against the invasion has a lot to do with his words and how he says them.

How he met and surpassed the escalating crisis's challenges can be considered one of the most brilliant paradigmas in crisis communication strategy ever.

The ability to communicate clearly, concisely and memorably in a crisis is paramount. It can provide assurance and comfort to those affected by the situation. It can also inspire to do what is needed to address the problem.

Zelensky is also providing a master class in strategic communications. Political leaders across the globe could learn much from Zelensky's skillfully straightforward talk that is so different from the usual (boring) EU communication we often see in Brussels. Zelensky's eloquence has not only captured the world's attention but has also proven to be the catalyst for significant policy shifts.

Risk & crisis communication plans are paramount for ensuring your organisation is prepared if and when an issue arises. There is a lot to learn from crisis communication best practices, but there is also a lot that we can learn from seeing organisations doing it wrong. Analysing their mistakes can help us avoid making similar ones.

Key recommendations:

Be prepared

The key to crisis planning is to expect the unexpected. You are unlikely to be able to predict the exact scenario, but you can take a look at your organisation, anticipate its vulnerabilities and forecast potential problems. What could expose your organisation to public attention, intense media scrutiny and damage your reputation?

The main question you have to answer here is: What are your organisation's top threats and vulnerabilities?

Develop a crisis communication plan

It is often too late to start determining what to do during a crisis. If you do not have a plan, do not wait for the crisis to hit first. Every organisation needs a method to identify who says what when bad news is there. A written plan will save you time and will, reduce the stress of the management and allow them to focus on dealing with the situation when it is there.

Build a transdisciplinary crisis team

Identify a small team of people in your organisation as your transdisciplinary crisis communication team. While every staff member is essential, they can't all be part of the crisis management team. Instead, put together a group of responsible and resilient responders, each with their dedicated role. It would be best if you had the right mix of executive personnel to enforce decisions, management to coordinate, external stakeholders for specific know-how you may not have, and the communications department to craft the right messages.

Identify and train the spokesperson

Speak with one voice and be transparent. Tell people as early as possible the good and the bad news. Identify one central spokesperson with the authority and knowledge to speak on your organisation's behalf and show empathy. If you are not 100% certain of the facts, do not communicate them. Do not speculate but share information about how you plan to address the problem. Two things make the ideal spokesperson: the right skills and position.

Speak first and be seen

The one undeniable strength that President Zelensky has shown is that everybody sees him at all times. If you want to be seen as a leader, you have to be seen. Those who report to you and those who look up to you must see you as a leader. Transparency is the key to credibility and, therefore, to trust and cooperation. You can't hide behind rules or regulations if you want people to follow you.

Getting your messages out quickly, even if initially through a simple holding statement, will show that you are aware of the situation, are taking it seriously and are in control. This will build trust and will reduce rumours and misinformation.

Some organisations have shown that a slow response with an inappropriate tone may fuel an ongoing crisis. You have an approximate response window of 30 minutes after an incident has gone public on social media. When responding to comments or questions, do not use dry corporate statements. Such responses could come across as inauthentic, dismissive or detached from the concerns of your stakeholders and the public.

Speed and tone of response are paramount

The internet has sped up the crisis management process. In its report on the use of social media in crisis communication, the OECD points out that organisations have an opportunity to communicate hard facts promptly. However, it comes with the challenge of controlling an increasingly explosive social media narrative. Also, the shift to more consumer-centric approaches has forced companies to adapt their tone.

Never underestimate the importance of tone. Most of us focus more on the process: whether we are developing the crisis plans and what we would or wouldn't say if this or that happened, but how you say it is just as important. It has the potential to make or break whether you come out of it well or sound tone-deaf. Social media has changed how consumers and the public feel about brands, companies or institutions. We have become a much more informal society, and people expect a one-to-one tone.

Show empathy and compassion

Empathetic leaders feel genuine concern for others and are motivated to help them make progress. While empathy is essential at all times, in difficult times like during a period of global pandemic and isolation, it is even more crucial. If people don't feel you care about them when there is fear because of an urgent crisis, they will know you never care.

Jacinda Ardern, the New-Zealand prime minister, is often praised for having brought a new way of conducting political communication. She has become famous for her emphatic tone and political efficiency. In March 2020, she managed to pass new gun regulations within a few months after the Christchurch mosque shootings.

Be transparent and honest

One of the best measures organisations can employ to avoid or reduce negative publicity is to aim for transparency. An organisation may be tempted to try to cover up some of the bad news. Don't. You need to be open and honest with the media and your clients or stakeholders. Trying to mask the intensity of any crisis is a recipe for trouble. Journalists will find out if you are trying to hide something. Information usually comes out anyway, and a lack of transparency could reinforce suspicions and make it worse. Nowadays, even the most seemingly insignificant detail can go viral within minutes, and reputations are increasingly at the mercy of social media. People need information but also understand that you don't have all the answers.

Test your plan and run simulations

The middle of a real crisis is the worst time to realise your plans don't hold up. We need to test our plan, the team and the spokesperson. Identify a type of crisis that would significantly impact your organisation and practice running through every step outlined in your plan. It will give everyone a better sense of how long it takes to execute the plan and help to identify any gaps or weaknesses that require more attention.

Make a post-crisis analysis

Any crisis communication team should make a follow-up after a crisis. A thorough review of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be done better and how to improve various elements of crisis management is needed to answer the question "What did we learn from this?".

Picture Jametlene Reskp Unsplash

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