What constitutes a crisis, and when is crisis communication called for?

What constitutes a crisis, and when is crisis communication called for? Any incident can potentially escalate into a crisis – ranging from natural disasters to product recalls, terrorism, or even saying something inappropriate, albeit in jest, that becomes a full-blown PR crisis! Because businesses never know when they will have to deal with fallout, having a crisis communication framework and procedures is one of the top priorities of management today. It is imperative that organisations have the technology, system, protocols – and human resources – necessary for effective communication in the event of any emergency.

Well thought out crisis communication procedures can ensure that information flows as required so that the situation can be quickly rectified and disruption minimised. The last thing businesses want is to have to simultaneously manage the incident and the ensuing disruption but, in most cases, they are left with little choice. When it comes to crises, “Be Prepared” is something to live by, but can any organisation claim to be fully prepared for any eventuality? With crisis management and crisis communication, there are SOPs that must kick in as soon as an incident occurs. Of course, first and foremost, human life and safety needs to be secured, but how do organisations prioritise what comes next?

Ideally, this should be identified in the course of developing organisational strategy which includes business continuity plans, and the elements of crisis communication should be laid down in tandem. When a crisis hits, all personnel who have been identified as integral to managing the event have to be able to speedily communicate with each other and share information that is imperative to the mitigation of the situation, whether it is to secure human resources or other physical assets of the business, prevent the firm from being the target of legal action or protect the organisation’s reputation – all of which can bring on crises of their own.

Everyone needs to be on the same page, when it comes to managing a crisis. The organisation cannot afford misinformation to permeate throughout its structure, or allow information to be misused or misunderstood in any way. The firm itself therefore needs to be clear about what its goals of having crisis communication are. It could be to clarify its position in relation to what has happened, to take responsibility and announce what mitigative measures will be implemented; or to deny responsibility for the incident, and explain why it is taking this stance. Either way, it has to be clear, from the outset, what direction it will take, and angle its communications accordingly.

Crisis communication must be indicated as such. It is a marker that the firm is dealing with a situation that is out of the ordinary. Internally, there should perhaps be codes to raise the awareness of identified employees that they need to operate in a different way for a certain period of time until the event has been mitigated, the disruption managed, and business returns to normal. Training is necessary for this. Employees need to be trained to recognise and respond appropriately to the crisis, which implies that they must also be able to communicate effectively, whether by text, phone, e-mail or face-to-face.

While the organisation deals with its crisis internally, it has to deal with its public image externally. It would be disastrous if miscommunication were to occur, and misaligned messages were issued. This will not inspire stakeholder confidence; it will instead harm the firm, giving an impression of internal chaos and the inability of management to be in control of the situation. How an organisation handles an incident, and how it communicates this, plays a big role in its post-incident recovery, and can adversely affect its brand image, long after the event has passed. In reality, crisis communication continues even after the event.

Which is why putting in place a crisis communication framework should be part of management strategy from the very beginning, and the right people should be identified and empowered to do what is necessary in the event of a crisis. This includes appointing those who will keep things running as well as designating official spokespersons who will be the point of reference for external parties such as the media, regulators and other stakeholders. As always, these measures cannot be implemented in isolation; those involved need to constantly be in clear, concise communication with each other, even when the crisis is over, and everyone has been advised to stand down.

This is when an analysis of how things were managed should be conducted, and performances reviewed. Shortfalls should be identified and addressed. The Crisis Communications Team should ask itself if there were things that should have been done differently, or could have been done better. It is tempting to go back to the comfort of business as usual, but the truth is, with every incident, business does not return to what it was before. An organisation does not go back to being the “old” normal because its new knowledge, culled from the experience, now colours its perspective, and it must now adapt and change to move forward.

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