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Communication in Crisis / Strategies of crisis communication

Strategies of crisis communication

At 8.45 a.m., September 11, 2001, New York City was still preparing for the election of the new mayor. One minute later, an airplane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. 101 minutes later, the twin towers did not exist any longer, the business district of Manhattan looked like it had survived a nuclear attack, the communications infrastructure had collapsed and and the city had lost almost 3,000 lives.

In the morning of Christmas Sunday December 26, 2004, tourists from Europe, the USA and Australia lying on the beaches of Sri Lanka, Indonesia or Thailand did not even know the word tsunami. Yet, in the next one and a half hours thousands of them, together with 230,000 local residents, fell victim to the gigantic waves caused by an earthquake under the surface of the ocean.

An earthquake or an avalanche. A terror attack, a bombardment or a rioting. A mile-up, a fire or a work accident. Different kinds of crisis can evolve anytime and anywhere, in countries, corporations or institutions. The most important feature of crisis situations like these is that they occur unexpectedly and surprisingly for the majority of the people involved. It is for this reason that governments try to do all they can to protect the state and its population. They support the activities of weathermen, they train firemen and specialists as well as sponsor institutions for the prevention of disasters. They legislate and make regulations as well as develop constitutional scenarios. Not only states are forced to prepare for potential crisis situations, but also the larger administrations and institutions (for example universities, laboratories, hospitals, hotels), international organizations (for example the UN and the NATO) and even public or private companies. In their buildings signs show the evacuation routes, they install fire protection equipment, trust professionals with the enhanced supervision of dangerous technology processes and develop security protocols. However, all this is far from satisfactory as one of the most important tools of controlling and preventing disasters is communication.

The basics of crisis communication

Crisis communication requires special skills. Just as the development of a new technology or the introduction of a new service to the market, crisis communication is also a process that consists of steps planned and elaborated in advance. Its nature is different from other, traditional forms of corporate communication (such as the public relations and marketing activities towards partners and customers for example). It is less visible, but its significance cannot be overestimated. Despite the expense of millions of Forints or even Dollars that a company spends for years or even decades on their image and product positioning, an unexpected disaster, be it an industrial accident, a fire or a natural disaster, all of this may come to nothing in an instant. In addition, the success of crisis communication is determined in the first, usually crucial hours or days. It is determined at the time when the management of the company, the employees and the team responsible for communication have to work in unexpected, extreme conditions due to the nature of the situation. Nevertheless, mistakes, bad decisions or phrases not worded carefully enough may damage the company for a longer period or may even bring it to ruin completely. Quite obviously, the opposite of all these is also true: proper crisis management can be advantageous for the company in a number of ways. The response to an unexpected catastrophe can equally embarrass experienced military and political leaders and professional managers. Studies of such cases and situations show that those perform to their best who started to prepare in proper time. Let us look at some examples.

Crisis communication with a political background: Chernobyl vs. the Challenger

It is a commonplace observation by this day that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster played an important role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was then, in 1986, that the population of the Soviet Union and that of other communist countries (including our country as well) faced the fact that their leaders not only withheld vital information and were secretive and mendacious, but also that they were unable to deal with crisis. There was an explosion in one of the reactors of a Ukrainian nuclear power station on April 26 in 1986. The communist authorities, however, concealed the accident for several days. It was only two days later, on April 28, that the first official piece of news appeared in the strictly controlled press - at a time, when the whole world had already been dealing with the disaster. State media release only announced that one of the reactors had been damaged and a government committee had been set up to deal with the situation. On the next day, on April 29, Népszabadság announced the following information, which had been received by the Hungarian News Agency MTI from the Soviet partner institution Tass News Agency:

"Disaster in a Soviet nuclear power plant!

Disaster in the Soviet Union, in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant: one of the reactors has been damaged. The communication statement of the USSR Council of Ministers released in Moscow on Monday night - which was also announced by the evening news program of the Soviet television, the Vremja - reports that measures have been taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Medical care has been given to the injured. A Government Committee has been established. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, to the North of Kiev, at the confluence of the Rivers Pripyat and the UZS. Here begins the Kiev water reservoir built on the River Dnieper. In a documentary assemblage, the Tass news agency pointed out that this was the first such case in the Soviet Union. Details regarding the cause or the nature of the damage of the reactor, the number of victims or the extent of the damage are not yet known."

Not a word was mentioned about the cause of the accident, the number of victims and injured, the consequences or the expected consequences. While it was a disaster with a global impact, the Soviet apparatus that was used to concealing reality did not even inform the millions of inhabitants exposed to the radiation, as they lived in close proximity to the plants, about the danger threatening their lives and the lives of their families. Moreover, even the May Day parades were held for political reasons, even though the leadership was aware that the hundreds of thousands of participants were subject to serious health risk. At that time major reforms were in progress in the Soviet Union. The dictatorship and the oppression had been eased, press freedom was increasing, the monolithic political system had been weakened, economic transformation was taking place. Still, the reformer leader Mikhail Gorbachev who had taken power in the previous year, acted according to the old reflexes. While wilder and wilder rumors were spreading in the gigantic country, he did not say a word about Chernobyl in front of the pubic for almost three weeks. Finally, on May 14, he said the following in the state television:


,,Good evening, Comrades!

As you all know, an incredible strike has occurred: the Chernobyl reactor has had an accident. This is painful news to all Soviet people and it has shocked the communist community as well. This is the first time that we face the real power of the uncontrollable nuclear energy ...''

At this time, however, it was already too late. The population no longer believed the leaders who previously had had unquestionable authority. The secrecy, the lies and the concealing led to general outrage. The awkward communication of the tragedy discredited the government and the Communist Party both at home and around the world.

Exactly the opposite had happened in the U.S. a few months before. On January 28, 1986, at 11:39 in the morning, the Challenger space shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after its launch. The subsequent investigation revealed that the accident was caused by the broken sealing ring of one of the booster rockets. The Challenger disaster was the biggest failure of the U.S. space program to that day. The seven crew members on board died instantly. Among them was the forty-year-old teacher Christa McAuliffe, mother of two, who had been selected in the "Teacher in Space" program from 11,000 applicants for the purpose of promoting the space program among students through the experiments conducted in space. According to the plans, as the first civilian space traveler, she would have given 15-minute presentations which would have been viewed by millions of schoolchildren through closed-circuit broadcasts in their schools. The situation was aggravated by the fact that due to media campaign accompanying McAuliffe's participation, the launch of the Space Shuttle was being viewed live by hundreds of thousands of children and they were scared to death by what they saw. But that was still not enough: President Ronald Reagan had planned his television speech about the state of the Union for that day, and it is traditionally one of the most important events in US politics. The President and his communications team were under tremendous pressure. After a brief discussion it was decided that the speech would be delivered, but contrary to the preliminarily plans, President Reagan would speak about the tragedy of the Challenger.

In the evening, the president was shown from the oval office of the White House. First he announced that instead of the planned speech about the US, he will speak about mourning and remembrance. He spoke on behalf of the whole nation, expressing deep sympathy to the mourning families. Then, addressing the children, he compared the astronauts to the Wild West pioneers. He said,

’the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.’

Then came the political message: the space program would not stop, on the contrary, the President assured the Nasa of his support, yet they were in trouble

’there will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews, and, yes … more teachers in space’

He evoked a World War II hero and the English pirate Sir Francis Drake's example who

’lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’

At the end of the speech he said about the astronauts,

‘We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.’

You can open the (larger) image in new window.President Reagan talks to the nation about the Challenger Disaster reagan_full.jpgPresident Reagan talks to the nation about the Challenger Disaster

President Reagan spoke only for 4 minutes. He said barely 650 words. However, this brief text (author: Peggy Noonan), is included in all the worthwhile textbooks of political communication to date. The disaster of Chernobyl and that of the Challenger held a mirror in front of the leaderships of the two competing world powers a few months apart. The Soviets were not able to rise to the challenge whereas the Americans came out of it stronger despite the loss. Gorbachev's authority and credibility decreased, Reagan’s increased. Five years later the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

You can watch Reagan’s speach online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12298521

A collection of pictures of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (via http://www.standard.net/slideshows/2011/01/27/challenger-explosion-25-years-ago-01-27-11)

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The Challenger Disaster
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