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How Do We Communicate through a Crisis?

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In today’s plugged-in world where information flies faster than ever before, communication during a crisis has taken on a different meaning, in many ways revealing the strength or weakness of an organization and redefining its future. With the internet and social media fast-tracking the transfer and sharing of news and providing a platform by which people can articulate their opinion on most things, organizations big and small are finding it imperative to be able to respond quickly and appropriately lest they risk compromising their reputation and business.

A crisis can take many forms. It can be a result of natural causes such as a crisis caused by an earthquake or similar other disasters. A crisis may also be financial in scope or technological, with the latter involving cybersecurity threats, loss of database information and related matters. It can be an unprecedented health or medical scare.   

No matter the cause or scope, a well-thought out communication and management plan will see an organization or business through a crisis.  Responses may differ depending on the circumstances but let’s look at some general guidelines on what to do to pull through.

Have a communication plan

With the pandemic the world facing today being unlike anything we’ve faced before, clear, honest and timely communication is even more paramount than ever. We need it foremost from our government, but we also demand it from private companies, in particular those that deliver basic needs.

Many enterprises in the National Capital Region announced their contingency setups soon after the national government announced it will put the capital and eventually the entire Luzon under quarantine. These organizations understood and valued the need to tell their audiences how they plan to continue servicing their needs while also ensuring the health and safety of their staff.

Telecom companies, a key stakeholder as companies implement remote work, are obviously quick on the uptake. Not only are they providing frequent updates on services but they are also introducing new services to better cater to people working off their homes and therefore requiring stable connection and of course entertainment.

Banks and other financial institutions are likewise showing themselves as important industry players, especially with quarantined consumers turning to online payments. These and other organizations provide frequent advisories to the public as and when developments happen to assure them their services will continue or inform of any changes in service delivery.

Unfortunately, some organizations took longer than others during the start of the community quarantine in sharing how they plan to serve their community while protecting their own people. Either they started formulating the plan only after the government made its announcement or they see very little value in communicating with their audience.

Better yet, plan ahead

Many say prevention is better than cure, but even the best of safeguarding strategies does not guarantee that a crisis will never happen. In this sense, planning should not be about how to prevent or avoid a crisis but more so on what to do should one hit.

In an ideal world, a precrisis plan is prepared way in advance. In some organizations, in fact, it is done at the initial stages or when operations are starting to flourish and management wants to invest in future-proofing. Planning ahead will save organizations and companies a lot not just in terms of costs but more so in headaches and organizational and reputation issues.

A precrisis plan should be based on a company-wide issues or vulnerability audit meant to identify and study all company vulnerabilities. This inventory should include a survey of the processes and setups and the possible related issues that may come up.

The outcome of this audit should be an issues manual that outlines protocols on how to deal with potential threats and scenarios. A handy manual will enable the top executives and communications team of an organization to respond quickly should something happen. In addition to outlining the critical response to specific situations, this bible will serve as a guide to ensure even steps taken postcrisis will be aligned with the company’s vision and help reduce the negative impact of a crisis.

Another outcome may be a change in processes or adoption of new ones. Some companies realize after an initial audit that they do not have a business continuity plan and start considering preparing one or that they are really just reacting to stimulus instead of being proactive. Whatever the outcome, an evaluation is always a good investment.

Unfortunately, not too many companies—yes even the big ones—see the value in investing in a precrisis plan. Why?

Many organizations find it too much of a hassle to anticipate a slew of scenarios and outline corresponding response plans. Other companies are deterred by the costs and steps involved in conducting an issues audit and publishing a crisis manual guide thereafter.

Others simply do not find the need, arguing that they have the in-house capability to respond to any crisis or can hire a third-party PR agency to assist them in their crisis management needs in the event something happens. Still others, unfortunately, do not have the vision.

A prompt response pays

Regardless of whether or not your organization has a crisis manual, a clear strategy for responding to and managing a crisis or an emergency is crucial. An acknowledgement of the emergency situation or change in work setup as in the case of the community quarantine will reflect your company’s commitment to all its stakeholders, external or internal alike. If there has been a crisis situation, an immediate statement will be a big help if a full explanation is not yet possible.  

A swift response communicates to your public that you are aware of the situation and are trying to be in control. It will also help preempt or minimize speculations. An effective (holding) statement makes the difference between being able to turn a crisis into something positive and doing more damage.

But what makes for a good initial statement? Here are some pointers:

  • Keep it simple and straightforward. Avoid jargon.
  • If you need to, prepare different statements for your different publics and stakeholders.
  • If possible, issue a response within an hour of the crisis. Remember that time is of the essence here.
  • Optimize all available channels. Take advantage of the internet and social media, if necessary, to reach a wider audience.
  • Show sympathy through an expression of concern about what happened and to those directly affected.
  • Emphasize that public safety – and the safety of your own people — is the number one concern.
  • Avoid a “No comment” response. It implies dodging of responsibility or hiding something. Either way, it paints a negative impression about the company or organization.

Depending on the availability of details, a holding statement may provide just enough information to communicate that you are in control of the situation. If you have the answers to the five Ws, share the data.

If, however, you are still awaiting or verifying details, avoid making rash statements and instead say that you will provide details once these are available. If possible, specify a time by which you will be able to provide an update. This conveys you are involved in handling the crisis.

Don’t stop communicating

Rebuild trust and avoid further reputation damage with sustained communication. Update your publics as more details are confirmed. Correct misinformation as soon as possible to avoid fueling more speculations. Share the steps being taken to address the situation and outline future related plans.

Some organizations even create a site or microsite exclusively for the purpose of handling communication during and after a crisis or emergency. A dedicated site can enable better control of information while relaying efforts to fix the problem and avoid future similar occurrences. Others would even hold a forum on their website to let users post messages of empathy or address queries. Still others share updates via Twitter. Indeed, there are more ways now to share information online, making it almost inexcusable not to be able to provide the public with updated data.

Do not, however, get lost in your goal of communicating. Oversharing is ill-advised, and in fact may even worsen the situation rather than bring it under control. Choose the information to share. The message targeted at the general public may be different from that aimed at shareholders or employees. What is important is the message reflects the truth.

To assume or not to assume responsibility? There’s no set-in-stone answer for this one. In a crisis or situation where an inquiry is still ongoing, it may not be necessary—and could even be unwise—to assume responsibility publicly.

Honesty and transparency, however, should be top priorities if the organization or company is clearly at fault. In this case, denying responsibility could have serious negative consequences, especially in these digital times when the public feels empowered enough to comment or share their views on almost anything.

American business tycoon Warren Buffett once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Surely, putting those five minutes to better use with strategic crisis communications and management is worth the investment.

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