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Communication in Crisis / The methodology of crisis communication

The methodology of crisis communication

As to the nature of crisis communication, it should not be rigid, since it has to manage sudden and unexpected events. Rather, it should be considered as a well-prepared and thought-over, flexible framework. There are many unknown factors, yet others are easy to plan and predict. It cannot be known if a fire or even an attack will happen, but it can be decided in advance that in cases of different kinds of crises who will notify whom within the company or who will speak to the media and who will certainly not.

In crisis situations many people tend to exaggerate. They amplify the negative effects and they are less interested in what positive events occurred. In such cases rumors, alarmisms and false news appear. For this reason, the aim of communication is to shape the opinion of the concerned, the authorities and the public as close to reality as possible.

During the planning and preparation phase it is worth keeping a few of the general features of crises in mind:

•Any crisis is a test that simultaneously carries the possibility of success and failure

•A crisis situation can be triggered by almost anything: a technical problem, a natural disaster, economic or social events, criminal or even terrorist offenses

•A crisis situation never consists of only one stage: different questions need to be answered in the first hours, and other tasks occur on the second or third day or week

•No crisis will pass on its own: interference is unavoidable

•The solution should always come from the leaders

•Every crisis comes quickly, but passes slowly

•Creating too rigid rules endangers the success of the reaction

•Crisis management is not a laboratory experiment: it takes place in uncertain environment, the decisions are influenced by conflicting news and stress and emotions caused by the damage

•It must be clearly defined by the organization what is considered a crisis situation and what is not, on the basis of the company profile

Preparation and forecast

To be prepared for a potential crisis, any given company has to keep a constant eye on its internal operation (internal communication, structure, information flow, fluctuation, decision-making processes), its external environment (economy, industry, sector) and the media (media appearances, internet, blogs, etc.). Companies should assess the risks resulting from operation (for example production, operational safety, fire protection) and the biggest hazards (weather, traffic). The risks (when, how often they can occur) and their consequencies (number of casualties, size of damage, media response, legal consequences) should be ranked on the basis of information received. Redundancies, theft, technology accidents or chemical alarm status are obviously much more likely to occur in a factory with industrial production than in a legal consultancy firm. Subsequently, the different options have to be categorized according to danger and occurrence, and the nature and the way of the alarm, the responsible person and their availability should be determined one by one. During this process, seemingly minor details should as well be taken into consideration: in case of a disaster the alert chain must not break just because the person selected to notify the fire department is on sick leave or vacation.

During communication planning the company needs to establish a living connection with the main state and local authorities (mayor, police and fire stations, ambulance etc.), as well as with the representatives of the local media (TV, radio, newspapers). Since in the case of a disaster, it needs to be referred to the former, yet communication with the latter will be necessary.

An important part of the preparation is setting up a crisis crew. When doing so, it should be clearly determined what the tasks, the competences and the responsibilities of each member are. In other words: who informs whom, who makes decisions, who deals with the press, who controls the rescue, who checks the latest news and information, who keeps in touch with the authorities etc. A site for the operation of the crisis crew has to be ensured (crisis room) and equipped appropriately (telephone, computer, printer etc.).

The crisis staff operates according to the action plan developed in advance. This includes the main tasks (organizing the rescue, damage assessment, tasks of managers), the persons responsible, goals and communication steps (explanation, information).

Management

Every crisis also serves as testing the management of the given organization or corporation. As the soldiers watch the general on the battlefield, employees, the people concerned and even the press watch the leaders of a company in an emergency situation. Whatever has happened, the solution must come from above, from management. It is important in such cases that the management demonstrates from the first moment: we're here, we take responsibility, we know what to do and we will do it. However, the title of director does not automatically go with the ability to manage a crisis. The marketing manager or the director of production has not been born to be a crisis manager. Therefore, they also need to be prepared for the task in advance, in order to be able to act effectively in an acute situation.

Successful crisis communication

In the case of a crisis situation it needs to be known that what we say is almost as important as what we do, but the two should harmonize with each other. Effective crisis communication is fast. If they need to choose, it is better if the company communicates something that will be corrected afterwards than if there is no reaction to the situation for hours or days. Communication can only be effective if it is comprehensible (simple), prepared (supported by data, arguments and information) and authentic (honest). Important is the person making the declaration and their preparedness, since they will represent the company in front of the public. If they are not appealing, the company cannot appeal either. If the person is unable to perform their duty, the employer will seem incompetent. To express empathy with the victims, the injured and the impaired is a prerequisite. A firm with suitable communication must not be unavailable for the press, the authorities, the employees or the public. The calm, factual information for the public can prevent the spread of rumors of false news that are difficult to disprove later on or can also prevent the development of a public panic.

There are avoidable mistakes. Lies must not be told. It is forbidden to announce news from uncontrolled sources. One should not be angry but should show empathy and avoid behavior that can be interpreted as aggression. One should not tell secrets and should only talk about what they really know about and what they are responsible for.

Firstly, it has to be assessed what has happened, the rescue should be organized, the leaders, authorities and the communication and crisis crew must be notified. The necessary information should be collected, the further tasks and other threats should be identified. It is necessary to get in contact with the media. At this stage the communication presents the facts, if necessary, warns about further dangers and communicates the actions to be taken.

Then the causes of the disaster should be clarified (site visit, consultation with the authorities, hearing of eye witnesses). Then follows the assessment of the damage and ensuring the conditions of relief work. The communicators reassure the people concerned and express their regret about what has happened. They uniformly convey the position of the company: the cause of the accident or disaster was that... At the same time they present the specific steps taken in order to solve the problem and their expected results.

In the third stage the risks are evaluated, the reaction of the public is assessed as well as the damage of the company and that of its image. Meanwhile, the communications experts specify each target group and develop the simple messages desired to be communicated to them.

The target groups

In crisis situations, we need to know whom we speak to. To this end, each target group should be determined. A different way of communication is needed with the internal staff and employees in insider positions, with the victims of a disaster or the public. Here are some important considerations. The employees know more and have different fears and expectations, but may give information to the media and their cooperation is crucial during the recovery from damages. Particular attention should be given to the impaired, especially the injured or the survivor relatives of the possible victims, as they need assistance, support and information. Technical jargon can be used only towards the authorities and professionals, because it is difficult to understand for the general public.

The average citizen is not interested in what the company knows, but what it does and how much attention it gives them and to the living environment. In stressful situations, it is harder for people to process information and they process information less efficiently. They focus mainly on the negative news, and not so much on the positive ones. When making a compilation of information, it is useful to know that the general public will develop its opinion in the first 10 to 30 seconds, which will be difficult to change later on. Surveys show that consumers of television news listen most to the first and last sentences of news. They will not be able to receive more than 3 or 4 communicational messages, therefore it is not good to make long announcements crammed with information.

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