The Role of Crisis Communication During an Emergency
This post discusses what crisis communication is and outlines the critical components needed to develop a comprehensive crisis communication strategy.
2020 was not the year to be without a crisis communication plan. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the California wildfires to widespread protests and demonstrations across the country, a different crisis situation captured headlines nearly every month—often with multiple crises occurring at once. These events surfaced a difficult reality for businesses: the increasingly important role of crisis communication.
Every crisis brings new challenges, which vary depending on the size and scope of the scenario at hand. And while different types of crises present different challenges, there is one constant: weathering a crisis requires strong real-time communication, follow-up, and an effective crisis management strategy.
In this post, we’ll discuss what crisis communication is, how it relates to overall crisis management, and outline the critical components you need when forming a comprehensive crisis communication strategy.
What Is Crisis Communication?
Crisis communication refers to the collection and dissemination of information related to an emergency or other situation. Effective crisis communication protects an organization’s business and reputation by providing context concerning a particular issue or incident of public interest.
Most often, crisis communication responsibilities fall on public relations professionals; however, these individuals typically work in close partnership with multiple stakeholders spanning HR, operations, and customer-facing teams and directly with executive leadership.
In recent years, organizations have increasingly incorporated crisis communication into overarching business continuity and emergency planning. This is due to the strategic—and urgent—nature of this work and a desire to align PR efforts with the organization’s overall emergency response plan.
Why Is Crisis Communication Important?
Most people have heard the adage, “news travels fast.” Yet, research shows that “fake news” travels even faster.
In 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied an estimated 126,000 news stories shared on Twitter. They found false or fabricated news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories.
During times of crisis, there’s a near-instantaneous and insatiable desire for information, which puts pressure on organizations to use all available communication channels to set the record straight. A well-designed crisis communications plan can help clear up the confusion by providing facts and clearly outlining how the business responds to the event. Having a crisis communication plan also helps counter the spread of misinformation before it has the opportunity to have real-world consequences by establishing an official accounting of what happened.
In early 2018, news reports began emerging about an internet trend called the “Tide Pod Challenge.” The social media trend involved someone (typically teenagers) filming themselves biting into one of the laundry detergent pods to document their reactions.
Soon after the trend reached mainstream news coverage, spokespersons for the American Association of Poison Control Centers and the U.S. Product Safety Commission issued statements reiterating the dangers of ingesting the chemicals contained in these products.
In response to the crisis, Procter & Gamble, which counts Tide among its portfolio of brands, quickly operationalized its crisis communication plan, producing a wide range of content across social media and other communication channels to reiterate what to do—and not do— with its products, likely preventing countless injuries and lasting brand damage.
Beyond the spread of misinformation, crisis communication helps protect your people and your brand, building trust between your organization and its primary audiences. It offers clarity and direction to key stakeholders and can even inspire confidence. Clear communication with stakeholders during emergencies and critical events also supports business continuity by ensuring those involved in incident response understand what is needed to resolve the issue.
How crisis communication supports overall crisis management
As professional communicators, PR professionals that specialize in crisis management play a critical role in ensuring both internal and external audiences receive timely, accurate, and relevant information. While it’s common for organizations to designate crisis management teams to spearhead these efforts, a recent study found that 95 percent of business leaders feel their crisis management capabilities need improvement.
In Timothy Coombs’s Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), he outlines four distinct approaches to crisis response:
- Rebuild: Take responsibility, apologize, and rebuild your relationship with your key stakeholders.
- Diminish: Minimize responsibility by justifying your actions or offering excuses.
- Deny: Place the blame elsewhere or claim there is no crisis.
- Bolster: Remind stakeholders of former good deeds.
Unlike emergency management, crisis communication doesn’t involve incident response. While incident response often focuses on internal processes to mitigate safety risk to employees or business impact, crisis communication efforts are focused on the potential impact of the incident on brand reputation, working to preserve an organization’s reputation and credibility among multiple audiences.
Crisis Communication Best Practices
Successfully navigating a potential crisis often requires quick decision making, alignment with multiple stakeholders, and coordinating the efforts of team members across the business. While every scenario is different, the following best practices will help you coordinate your response—from pre-crisis planning through post-crisis follow-up—to avoid as much disruption to your business as possible when developing your crisis management plan.
Take immediate action
With a 24/7 news cycle, the proliferation of social media channels, and the ability to share information instantaneously, a crisis demands immediate action. Even if you don’t yet have all the details, prepare a holding statement to reassure external stakeholders (e.g., press, regulators, etc.) that you’re aware of the issue and working to resolve it. Be clear, concise, and provide a timeline of when you’ll be able to share another update. Often, simply acknowledging you’re aware of the issue will be enough to ease your audiences’ anxiety.
Avoid “no comment”
In response to a crisis, the worst thing a company can say is, “No comment.” Failing to provide a more detailed statement will appear defensive and may result in key audiences thinking you’re at fault. Instead, be honest and upfront about the facts as you know them. Make sure attribution for your public statements reinforces who is taking charge of the situation internally. If you’re still awaiting more information, provide clarity about the timeline so that interested parties know what to expect and when.
Set up a listening and monitoring system
To ensure you have a pulse on any feedback or commentary being shared across social media and other external channels, set up a listening and monitoring system. A listening and monitoring system involves delegating specific people to comb through social media channels, watching the news, and flagging any critical items. You should also reach out to your safety and security team to use your organization’s threat intelligence and risk monitoring capabilities. Early identification of a threat will give you more time to prepare and help you understand the impact on your people and locations.
Be transparent and authentic
When crafting any external response, remember to be human. If you adopt a more corporate, neutral tone, it may come off as uncaring. Instead, be transparent, admit if you made a mistake, and convey a desire to make things right or resolve things quickly. Nothing will destroy public trust in your brand quicker than a response that demonstrates a lack of caring.
7 Steps to Improve Your Crisis Communication Plan
The increasing possibility of a crisis affecting your organization warrants a detailed crisis communication plan. Lack of preparation will result in more damage to your business and your reputation. The following six steps will ensure you have an airtight plan ready for any crisis scenario.
Step #1: Document possible crisis scenarios
You may not be able to predict the exact crisis your business will encounter or when it will happen, but you can pull together a list of possible scenarios based on your knowledge of your business and what similar organizations have faced in the past. For instance, your product or service may encounter an issue or an outage necessitating a recall or mass refunds. If your organization is located in a hurricane-prone area, you’ll need a crisis communication plan specific to a natural disaster. Perhaps your CEO may decide to retire unexpectedly. Spend some time thinking through all plausible crisis scenarios and how you’d respond.
In a recent episode of The Employee Safety Podcast, Penny Neferis, Director of Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery and Emergency Response at JetBlue Airways, discussed how brainstorming potential threats helps JetBlue’s crisis and emergency management teams practice their response. She explains, “We are constantly promoting preparedness and finding ways to engage our teams. Crisis preparedness is part of our DNA. You can’t let your emergency plans sit and collect dust. Having an active program is essential to keeping employees safe.”
By proactively identifying what crises could occur, you can be better prepared to respond if and when they strike.
Step #2: Monitor for emerging crises and threats
Once you’ve documented potential business risks and threats to your organization, you need a way to monitor them. Ensure your internal business continuity, security, and communications teams have documented processes and procedures for identifying, evaluating, and escalating emerging threats using open source intelligence and other public sources. If your organization doesn’t already have a system in place, assess the business case for investing in a modern threat intelligence solution capable of alerting your internal teams of incidents as they occur.
Step #3: Assemble a crisis communication team
Create a task force comprised of people from across your organization who can be called upon to help respond to a crisis. Each person should be assigned a designated role, and the team should include representation from HR, marketing, PR, legal, and the head of your organization’s emergency response. Make sure to include at least one member from the C-suite as they’ll likely serve as your primary spokesperson and should be kept up to date on all decisions and actions taken.
Step #4: Prepare company spokespeople and employees
Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to have more than one company spokesperson. At least one C-suite executive should be prepared to speak publicly about the crisis. Each spokesperson should also understand the company’s key messaging and pre-determined communication goals for the crisis. Train your spokespeople to deliver statements with empathy and remind them to be authentic. They should speak clearly, know how to stay on message, and be available 24/7 until the crisis is resolved.
Additionally, you should prepare employees who may receive questions from customers, partners, or the media about the crisis. You’ll likely want to leverage your company’s mass notification system to reiterate your company’s social media policy and rules of engagement for responding to external requests. Consider providing customer-facing employees with pre-approved language to answer the most common questions.
Step #5: Identify key stakeholders
Consider the people and groups who may be affected by a crisis. This includes both internal and external audiences, including employees, investors, customers, and the general public. Once you have a good idea of the number of people that will need to be addressed and informed, tailor your message accordingly. The message you send to employees should not be the exact message you send to customers.
Step #6: Integrate into your emergency preparedness plans
Not all crises will be PR crises, and some will require emergency management in addition to crisis communication. Make sure you include a section in your crisis communication plan for emergency preparedness (and vice versa). Consider at what point in a crisis you may require the safety and security team’s assistance and make sure you’re aligned on overall goals. Your emergency preparedness team will likely already have a communication plan in place for employees, so if you’re communicating with external audiences as well, you may be able to use the same emergency notification system to get the message out.
Step #7: Assess, analyze, and update
Once the crisis passes, reconvene as a team for postmortem analysis. Rate your company’s overall performance in response to the event and determine what can be improved in future scenarios. Once you’ve conducted your assessment, update your crisis communication plan to account for that feedback.
The number and severity of crises facing organizations will continue to increase. By taking immediate action and following the guidelines shared above, your organization will be more than ready to respond and recover. A crisis communication plan can help you significantly mitigate any potential damage and keep your organization’s reputation intact. Above all else, remember to act quickly, communicate clearly, and be human.