Making it clear – the purpose of crisis and sensitive communications
Fatal work-related accidents, contaminated foodstuff or large-scale data leaks are examples of what ‘crisis communications’ might make you think of from the top of your head. And yet, this niche market of communications does not necessarily presuppose the occurrence of a fully-fledged crisis. Quite to the contrary. First, crisis communications typically regard a way broader spectrum of ‘sensitive’ situations. Secondly, crisis communications, before anything else, translate into diligent preparatory work, which inevitably will remain exactly this: preparatory. This I shall expose in the following.
Incidents and accidents. Of course, the above-mentioned examples are very relevant scenarios for a great deal of companies. However, they are matters of policy implementation first and foremost, as you may have failed to comply with environmental, health and safety standards, be they regulatory or merely voluntary. Alternatively, such accidents and incidents can plainly and simply be an unfortunate mistake’s 13thoccurrence (a ‘rule’ borrowed from the aviation sector), when it happens to link up with twelve other mishaps to form a causal chain, triggering the even more unfortunate outcome.
Rulebooks for unruly situations. In these cases, crisis manuals are the norm, detailing among other things the crisis unit to put in place, procedures to follow, formulations to adopt, attitudes to display and different stakeholders to take into account. As textbooks ready to serve when bad luck strikes, they need to be carefully drafted and require regular updates. Their guidelines need to remain in line with the latest risk assessments, probable scenarios, press lists and other varying considerations. Inasmuch as they set guidelines, however, crisis manuals only take you that far and no further, as every situation will prove different by definition.
A couple of basic rules to take away. As I wouldn’t wish to stop here and spoil your suspense, let me mention some basic principles to bear in mind, just in case. Should a crisis hit, some kind of reaction, and thereby acknowledgement, will be required, whatever your level of information. Remember: internal comes before external communication. Put differently: first stakeholders first. Their hierarchy must be respected. Typically, avoid having them learn it from the press, when you should have broken it to them. And keep your communication proportionate: leave the scale, tone and message of your communication measured, in line with severity of the situation and the attention it receives. Another key ingredient is levelheadedness. A lack of it may unintentionally and unnecessarily amplify the crisis. However, this is where a new, human factor comes in: people’s changing expectations.
Increasing expectations from the public. The quite obvious, solipsist observation of every sensitive situation being inherently different will hardly surprise you. All the while, the fact that every crisis requires a dedicated crisis management is exacerbated by a couple of trends. Often-cited digitalisation has brought about a rapid multiplication of ever-evolving communication channels, a continuing flood of information and misinformation, a muddle of messages and emotions… Not speaking of their speed, of course. In other words, while time and attention leave people in general (and any of your target audiences in specific) little time to perceive your messages, the democratisation of communication and power to speak out simultaneously entail increased expectations: of corporate responsibility, engaging action and of instant information.
A little thought experiment. These expectations remain abstract? Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine yourself in a critical situation. Things are getting heated, information at hand is sparse. You are certain not being able to remain silent. You are just as certain not to have a satisfying answer, either. Sensitive communication starts when someone confronts you with the question, which generally doesn’t take long. Think of a parent, a journalist or a politician. Crisis communication starts when someone else provides an answer (not necessarily the answer).
Making it clear: preparation is key.Now, the latter scenario all too often precedes the former. Put differently, people make up their mind fast, at your expense. The lesson learnt? Prepare your sensitive communications while you can, as proper preparation may prevent the issue from erupting in the public sphere, causing communicational mayhem and compromising your reputation. In this regard, targeted monitoring of print and digital media has become indispensable. The core of the preparatory work then consists in defining, calibrating and conveying your message to those stakeholder communities likely to turn into allies and be a multiplier of your position. Once the public debate is launched, you can concentrate on timings and tactics.
Please provide examples!Sure. Here we go: a momentous change comes up in the shareholder structure, running the risk of unsettling the workforce and destabilising the business. How would you go about it? – You anticipate a tough negotiation over how to apply, interpret and renegotiate collective bargaining agreements. How will you present your arguments? Will you keep cool when things turn tactical? – A grassroots campaign that pitches an out-of-box idea to the political arena and civil society. To name just three. Whatever the circumstances, the complexity of the issue all too often makes it difficult for outsiders to understand the change, its reasons and effects. Historical backgrounds, legal constraints, economic logics and political dynamics matter. In other words, an underlying asymmetry of information will make it difficult for any message to be conveyed effectively.
What it takes.This is why it is key to understand the extent, the risks and opportunities from a communications point of view, from an early stage on. On the one side, it goes without saying that any engagement in social responsibility, corporate citizenship or even philanthropy will enhance your standing, credibility and authority. This will likely pay off when you find yourself in a critical situation. Considered by themselves, these assets will on the other side not guarantee *it* won’t hit the fan. In order to avoid moving from sensitive to crisis communication, it takes care, method, diligence. In short, preparation. Above all else, don’t miss the chance to transform a crisis into an opportunity, risk management into opportunity management. To make it perfectly clear.
First published in Victor, FJD magazine.