Crisis Communications & Management: Just The Role Of PR?

In today’s business environment, organisations need to be prepared for a wide range of potential crises. These range from extreme weather conditions, product recalls, corporate malfeasance, cyberattacks or even acts of terrorism. The only thing that will be certain is that a crisis will hit without warning. Regardless of how prepared an organisation is, it is highly likely that it will be caught on the back foot; it is how it responds, that will determine how it survives the crisis. And because its survival concerns everyone in the organisation, crisis communications and management cannot be confined to just the role of public relations (PR).

On its own, crisis communications is intended to connect the organisation’s stakeholders and keep them “in the loop” when a negative event happens. While most companies have their own individual stakeholders to keep abreast of developments, “stakeholders” in the general sense are likely to include employees and their families, investors and shareholders, customers and clients, suppliers and contractors, the neighbouring communities, the media, regulators and the relevant authorities. Authorised company representatives will share information that allows them to address the situation, including protecting assets and employees, ensuring business continuity.

Firms need to respond quickly and confidently when incidents occur, although the manner in which this is done may vary according to their respective crisis management strategies. Communications in a crisis situation should always be clear, relevant and accessible. It needs to provide clarity and direction to employees, customers and collaborators at a time of uncertainty and confusion.Simple, factual information at times like these helps to lessen anxiety and allows the organisation to take control and manage the narrative of the event. This helps to stabilise the situation, particularly if the incident has negative immediate and long-term repercussions.

It sets the stage for putting in place post crisis communication strategies as well. Crisis communications is imperative to business continuity, and is part of an organisation’s crisis preparedness measures. It starts with understanding the firm’s key stakeholders and a crisis communication plan. Crisis communication plans provide important guidelines for preparing a business for communicating during an emergency or unexpected event. They outline what to do at the onset of the crisis, and how to continue communicating with the public during and post-event. Anything that could disrupt business continuity is an instance where a firm needs to communicate with its stakeholders.

Ethical questions often arise when a crisis occurs; how these are addressed reflects the company’s corporate values. Most crises are inevitably emergency situations as well. This compounds an event already fraught with difficult decision-making. Crisis communication and management are critical in the organisation’s crisis management plan; roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined, and the plan should be field-tested for fitness of purpose. It is within the operationalisation of the crisis management plan that the role of PR becomes apparent. Depending on the requirements of the firm, a PR strategy aligned to that of the crisis communication plan, should be developed.

Besides identifying and training appropriate spokespersons for the firm, PR usually also organises media-related engagements, and is the go-to unit for information dissemination. It does this through media releases and briefings; establishing relationships with representatives of the affected parties, interest groups or stakeholders; and preparing communiques relevant to the event, to internal and external parties. While PR is important, it is only one of the many components or tools that needs to be wielded effectively in the event of a crisis. What is crucial, is having the right people to do it – and this starts with identifying appropriate members for a crisis management team.

And the team starts work before the crisis hits – by anticipating all manner of events which could inflict damage on the organisation. Ideally, it should be a small team led by the CEO but it should have senior representation from as many units/departments of the organisation as possible; any crisis that hits will eventually affect everyone. The team may also need the input of subject matter experts. Having a team at this pre-crisis stage indicates the proactiveness of the organisation. It helps identify potential crises and works out mitigative/preventive measures; and it helps in spreading a sense of preparedness in the face of crisis, instead of trying to respond just adequately when a crisis actually hits.

One job which is exclusively the responsibility of PR is the training of appropriate spokespersons who will be authorised to speak during a crisis. Ideally, potential spokespersons should be identified and trained for internal and external communications as well as for different media, to adequately cover all channels. In tandem with the crisis communications and management team, PR should develop standard initial responses in the crisis management and planning stages. These are usually general in nature, and indicate that the organisation is aware of the issue and is taking appropriate steps to manage or mitigate it. It also helps the organisation steer clear of using the “No comment” line.

Crisis communications and management continue post-crisis as well. A steady stream of information – the recovery process, corrective action or investigations, for example – should be channelled towards internal and external stakeholders about what was done, and is continuing to be undertaken, post-crisis. There should also be analysis of the way communications was handled; identification of red flags, potholes and shortfalls; and the measures necessary to correct them. Despite increasingly sophisticated methods of communication, when crisis hits, organisations still find it difficult to differentiate between crisis communications, which preserves the firm, and PR, which promotes it.

Crisis communication and management is essentially crisis management in corporate communication – it’s when corporate communications switches to crisis mode. Many things stem from inadequate communication. Confusion may arise, leading to anger and negative reactions among stakeholders. The organisation will be seen as incompetent, or trying to “cover up” – which may further aggravate the situation which needs to be managed, causing long-term impacts that may ultimately affect its bottom line and decrease its value.

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