So what is a crisis? My heavily used online dictionary says that it is any of the following :
• A stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; a turning point.
• A condition of instability or danger, as in social, economic, environmental, political, or international affairs, leading to a decisive change.
• A dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person’s life.
• The point at which hostile elements are most tensely opposed to each other.
Indeed I have seen times when all of the above have been in play. But I think that there is a bit more to the definition of “crisis” in the communication sense.
So how would I define a communication crisis? I’ve observed that they:
• Involve considerable uncertainty
• Last longer than one day
• Put significant pressures on organisational resources, particularly people’s time
• Raise questions to which people demand answers
• Raise questions to which there may be no immediate answers
• Create tension and division, both internally and externally.
The most untidy crisis scenario is when political forces are at play. Each tends to look for ways of playing the crisis for advantage, usually at the expense of the other. In the early stages of a crisis event this can add to public confusion about what’s going on and how they may be affected. Consistency and clarity of message is vital in any communication, but even more so in a crisis. Two diametrically opposed sources of the “truth” never helps.
If there is a set of rules for how to effectively manage communication in and around a crisis, it will generally contain some core principles with a range of tactics and deliverables based on the needs of the crisis itself.
Planning for a crisis is not impossible but it is extremely hard. That’s because the crisis will usually shape what resources you may have available to work with and the time you have to deploy them.
Some organisations occasionally do simulated crisis workshops. While these are useful, they’re often based on a Day 1 scenario and assume that a full suite of business tools and key role-holders are available.
The real work in managing actual crisis communication doesn’t usually arrive until at least Day 3 and it’s often not until Day 5 that things can get really untidy. In the early stages of a crisis, media are generally supportive and keen to help to get your messages out, particularly where affected people are also their readers. If your organisation has earned the privilege, media will often give it the benefit of the doubt.
Day 5 is often Blame Day. By that time the crisis response phase is underway and perceptions of inequality of actions and analysis of what may have led to the crisis start to get going.
I believe that a Day 3 or a Day 5 scenario is a better place to start a planning workshop than is Day 1.
Another thing I’d recommend adding to the mix when constructing a workshop scenario, is to take all of your organisation’s communication people out of play. Give them observer roles. That sounds pointless? The test of a good plan and good systems is that other senior managers in your organisation or a bunch of people from outside it should be able to step in and make things happen. If you want to add a bit more spice to your workshop’s mix, remove telecommunications as well. Imagine running a crisis communication centre without email and internet. It can happen, so plan for that.
Starting a simulation a few days into a crisis is also a good way of coming to terms with [insert your name here]’s Law of Crisis Communication, which is “Things always get worse before they get better.” That truism should be a part of all your key messages in an event’s early stages. It will save your spokespeople having to explain every new development or plot twist and help them to stay on message about what’s being done to sort things out.
I know it’s impossible to truly expect the unexpected. But one of the keys to success in effectively managing crisis communication is to be able to make the best of what you’ve got.
Blatant commercial plug here: If you’d like a hand with your crisis scenario planning, please give Sangster Communication Plus a call. Our network contains some Wise Heads who have all done their time managing real crisis communication events, including some really big and complex ones. While we may not have all the answers, we probably know most of the questions!