13.03: Crisis Communication
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This section was written by Angela Fentiman.
Digital Technology & Crisis Communication
We cannot discuss crisis management and communication without first addressing the fundamental changes that have happened in communication due to the advancement of digital technology. These are changes that continue to present both challenges and opportunities for communicators and further complicate the way we manage the narrative during a crisis.
In general, the global proliferation of information systems has provided humanity with unlimited opportunities to access information. In turn, this has also created a societal shift in where individuals place their trust. We tend to trust individuals (and in many cases, strangers) instead of institutions. As you can imagine, this paradigm shift has significant implications for organizations that must to communicate during a crisis.
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Stages of Crisis Management
You can look at crisis management in three stages: before, during, and after the crisis. Before the crisis is your opportunity to plan for what is likely inevitable. In most cases, it is not a matter of if, but when, and how severe of a crisis you will encounter. Having a written document that has important contacts, key messages, and other critical information can save time and help you manage the crisis successfully.
Once the crisis happens, you will depend on the work you did during the planning stage to help you survive and recover. During a crisis, the most important thing is to preserve life, the second is to protect property. As a crisis is unfolding you should be gathering as much information as possible and monitoring comments and public sentiment. You will need to have the resources in place to allow you to respond quickly, and with pertinent facts. Throughout a crisis, your audience will want to know what happened, when it happened, who knew about it, and what you will do to make sure it never happens again.
Once the crisis is over and you have a chance to review the known factors, it is time to start managing the aftermath. The period following a crisis can be a huge opportunity for companies to do the right thing and work to repair and even improve their reputation. How planning and an actual crisis are handled have a significant impact on post-crisis communication. This is the stage of crisis management and communication when we start to consider an apology, should one be necessary.
Speed of response has always been important in a crisis, but the influence of digital communication has made disseminating quick and accurate information even more critical. Some of your messaging can be prepared in advance with templates to help you focus on the facts of the particular crisis and get your messages out faster. Working with your legal team and senior management to review the messaging templates, so that much of the content can be pre-approved, is recommended in the prior planning stage of crisis management. This applies to social media as well.
Make sure you have holding statements prepared and approved for the most common crises that are likely to occur. This will ensure that messaging can be disseminated immediately, following the occurrence of an emergency. The exact types of messages required will vary depending on the organization. Holding statements are a short and simple acknowledgment of the crisis so that your audience knows that you are aware and taking action.
For example, a holding statement in the case of an active shooter might take this form: There have been reports of an active shooter on campus. We are working with law enforcement to assess the situation and will provide updates as we have more information. Students, faculty, and staff should shelter in place, and lock all doors and windows until further instructions are given. Please avoid the area if you are not already on campus.
In a life-threatening situation like the active shooter example, it is important to acknowledge that general safety information needs to get out and have that information in your talking points. Instructions may change as the crisis unfolds, but the sooner you can get basic safety information out to the public, the better.
Having well developed messaging templates significantly increases the speed that you can get your messages out. Preparing as much of the messaging you can in advance also gives you a chance to think clearly about the crisis before you are caught up in the adrenaline of the situation. The template will provide you with prompts and reminders of questions you need to ask during the crisis.
You must craft clear and concise messages during a crisis. Most organizations have jargon and acronyms that are commonly used. Your messaging should not have any of this language. Use words that everyone can understand and always spell out acronyms. If you cannot avoid using jargon, make sure you explain what it means. Your explanations should be relatable for someone who is outside of your organization. It may help to imagine that you are explaining something to a child or an elderly individual. Assume that your audience has a knowledge gap and make sure to bridge that gap. Provide background information if needed for context. Choose your words carefully and make sure they really mean what you intended to say. Ambiguity must be sought out and eliminated where it is found to exist. It is recommended that multiple sets of eyes review anything that goes public; during a crisis make sure you have some people outside of the communications team review your messages.
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Media Relations & Spokespeople
Managing media relations during a crisis is your opportunity to put your planning and preparation into action. After a crisis, you want to use the media to tell the story of how the crisis was solved and why it won’t happen again, apologize if needed, and then change the conversation.
Solid media relations practices are essential during a crisis. You want to tell your side of the story and get the information out timely and regularly to stay ahead of the rumors. You must know your audience and what matters to them. Be sure to stay in contact with the reporters who are covering the story. If it’s a crisis that lasts for several days, proactively provide them with regular updates. If you can, provide video or photos of how your organization is effectively managing the crisis.
Spokesperson training is extremely important. Talk about the people who are impacted by the crisis and what you are doing to help them. You want to stick to the facts and make sure your messages are clear and easy to understand.
Make sure the reporters have all the information they need and get back to them if you have items that need follow-up. Keep a close eye on coverage so that you can address rumors and misinformation before it gets out of control.
Crisis management before the 24-hour news cycle and social media was very different. Communicators had more time to gather information and craft their messages. Information was filtered and fact checked through reporters and editors. Now we have a race to be first, and facts and accuracy have suffered.
Social media has increased access to information and made it easy for anyone to share content broadly. This has helped uncover injustice. It has also allowed for misinformation to be shared and spread rapidly. Sometimes this is unintentional, and other times it is deliberate and malicious. Fake news has become a major problem that communicators must find a way to manage. Being prepared to get your messages out quickly can help you get ahead of false stories.
Navigating media relations will have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your crisis response. Most importantly, be open, honest, and transparent. Bad news should come from you first. Lying during a crisis is never a good idea and often it is the cover-up that creates more problems than what was being concealed. If you provide consistent, factual, and timely information you are likely to maintain your credibility and preserve the organization’s reputation.
Anyone who may potentially be used as a spokesperson during a crisis should receive media training. During training, you should ask your spokesperson all of the questions you would not want to be asked in real life. You have to be prepared for the toughest questions possible. If you don’t have good answers for those questions, keep refining your messaging until you get it right. If media training is done correctly, the actual interview or news conference should feel easier than the training.
Several criteria should be considered when selecting a company spokesperson for a crisis. You may want to have different people available to answer questions in different forums. If the crisis is significant your CEO or top executive should speak. People want to see the leaders of an organization take responsibility. Smaller crises or those that are extremely technical can be handled by a member of the communications team or a technical expert.
Criteria to consider when selecting a spokesperson:
- How comfortable are they in front of the camera?
- Can they show concern or do they seem callous?
- Do they explain information in a clear way?
- Do they know when to stop talking?
- Do they have technical knowledge of the situation?
- Is the person likable?
In some cases, you may be stuck with a person in a leadership position who is not an ideal spokesperson. If this is the case, try to use more adept spokespeople when possible and use the higher ranking person only when necessary. Coaching can help with some of these issues, especially if the person is open to critique. You can also use written statements or release recorded videos to keep the person from being on live television. However, some situations do require the leader of an organization to directly address the media.
Building a Crisis Management Team
It is important that everyone who is responsible for crisis management understands the importance of communicating during a crisis and knows their roles and responsibilities. Your crisis response team should be clearly identified and meet regularly to drill potential crisis scenarios.
When building your team, you need to think about everyone who has interactions with key audiences (not just the communications team). This will vary among organizations, but some departments to consider are human resources, customer service, and procurement. Depending on the way a company is organized, you will also want to involve roles like public affairs or government relations and account managers. Anyone who touches an audience should be included because you will want their expertise on that specific audience segment and you’ll want their help in reaching them. Senior management should always be engaged in crisis management activities as well. You need to know that you have the support of your top leadership, they also need to know and trust you so that they will listen to your advice in the midst of a crisis.
Types of crisis most relevant to the hospitality industry
Type of Crisis
Earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes, tsunamis
Food Health and Safety
Food-borne illness, product recall
Customer Problems and Complaints
Customer harmed or customer’s property damaged
Customer credit card information stolen, Reservation system hacked
Terror attacks, mass shootings
Public Rating Websites
Customer review websites are extremely popular, especially as they relate to the hospitality industry. Sites like Yelp and Google allow customers to rate their experience with a variety of businesses. While a bad review on one of these sites is not a crisis, it is important to monitor the reviews and comments relating to your business regularly so that any customer concerns or complaints can be addressed before they grow into larger problems.
Social Media Policy
If your organization is using social media, you should have a company social media policy. This is an important tool for both preventing and managing a crisis. Anyone using social media on behalf of your organization is a spokesperson and they need to think and operate under the same guidelines. Your social media policy should have clear roles and responsibilities, be clear and easy to understand, and identify any topics that are off-limits. Employees should also know that they are responsible for what is said on their private social media accounts about the company as well. In fact, companies can be fined if employees discuss an organization on social media and do not disclose their relationship.
A social media policy is helpful in engaging your employees as company ambassadors as well. Your employees can disseminate important messages during a crisis and also share stories about what has been done after a crisis. Having a clear social media policy makes employees feel comfortable sharing company news online.