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When Things Go Wrong: 5 Thoughts on Crisis Communications

No, there is no such thing as a silver bullet for crisis communications. Because every crisis is unique, comes with its specific challenges. And because what was right yesterday can be wrong today. But there are a few basic principles that deserve attention – in peaceful times and especially in times of crisis. Here are five fundamentals we at Mundo Marketing embrace in any sort of emergency response.

1. Cut out complexity

Simply put, a crisis is a situation out of control. Like a car gone into a spin. One minute we are driving just a bit too fast. Next thing we know events have taken on a life of their own. With potentially serious consequences.

In a crisis, the minutes fly by and control is lost. Too much happens at once. More questions than answers. No time for appropriate response, let alone strategic action.

The only sensible approach: Cut down on complexity and focus on essentials.

Cut down on complexity: Sounds too easy. Because life, after all, is complex. But a crisis is no time for the finer nuances, as valid and valuable as they may be. What counts in crisis communications are a few hard facts. What exactly is the problem? Who is affected? What are we doing about it? How do we assure it doesn’t happen again?

Short, solid and meaningful answers to these fundamental questions, put in writing, are extremely valuable. Because these short, solid and meaningful answers require analysis, force decisions and ultimately reflect a consensus. They are the foundation on which communication builds. An agency can be quite valuable in this phase. Not just because of prior experience. As an external partner, the agency comes with an unbiased view, an in-house representative of the public, the media or the authorities.

A crisis is bound to raise a few more questions. How this could have happened, for instance, and whose fault it is. It’s certainly legitimate to ask. But not every question requires an immediate answer. Especially when liability or insurance issues are at stake. In the heat of the battle, “We are working closely with the relevant authorities to assure that these questions are properly addressed” would be a legitimate and appropriate response.

The foremost objective of reducing complexity: Assure visibility as a basis for understanding and trust. Grace under pressure, plain old respectability helps to take the heat out of the crisis. Left unattended,  crises tend to steer towards scandal.

2. One voice

Larger companies, institutions or organizations have strict rules concerning public statements and media response. Where such rules don’t exist, a crisis is a ‘better late than never’ call to define clear mandates. And yes, a crisis can be rather late. Because crises rarely come out of the blue. A communications function must be expected to identify crisis potential early and help prevent an issue from becoming a crisis – as an internal caretaker or as an external partner.

Quite often, the root of a crisis is not the issue itself. But the way an uncomfortable truth was handled. More specifically, the way it was communicated. Ambiguities, omissions, half-truths or worse, tolerated in an ill-guided effort to mask and disguise.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that three people could keep a secret. Provided two of them are dead. In other words: The truth will come out. The only question is: Bit by bit with much pain? Or straight and respectable.

Less dramatic – but no less detrimental – are discrepancies or contradictions, with one voice claiming A while another says it’s B. Such things happen. But in a crisis, stakeholders like neighbors, customers, suppliers or shareholders tend to be nervous. In an atmosphere of concern and doubt, contradictions are poisonous.

It is therefore highly advisable, especially in a crisis, that only one person speaks on behalf of the organization. That should not be the top boss. Because a spokesperson can resort to a “I really don’t know right now, but I will find out”. Whereas the person with ultimate responsibility might be expected to know everything at all times. He or she only steps forward when the occasion warrants.

Taking the spotlight in a crisis is certainly challenging. Much depends on talent and experience, but even more so on the team behind the curtain. Getting questions answered, getting things done. Knowing exactly what the status is, what the key facts are at all times. Mapping out next steps and getting decisions.

Top priority of crisis communications: Get out of reactive mode and regain control.

3. Respect emotions 

Especially when hardware and substances are involved – think burst or burn –, facts count: What, how much, where, when, anybody hurt? But once an industrial accident or other misfortune has escalated into a crisis, emotions get involved: Anger, disappointment, distrust, fear.

Much can be gained if an organization in a crisis not only supplies facts but also recognizes, respects and addresses emotions. Put another way: A mother’s concern for the safety of her children will rarely be mitigated with percentages and statistics.

Facts are needed to understand and assess an issue. But your average outsider is rarely able to follow. There will always be a knowledge gap requiring trust. That those in charge are doing their very best. That they are acting responsibly. And that our values and goals are actually not that far apart.

Where trust has been lost, patience and consistency are needed. And, even more important, empathy and a willingness to compromise.

Understanding relies on facts, but trust builds on emotions. In a crisis more than ever.

4. Don’t forget your friends

The louder you yell, the more attention you get. What works in kindergardens also works in the public arena. A media thriving on controversy does not help. Which is not the media’s ill will but the consequence of human curiosity.

A crisis confronts a company or organization with a host of demands and requirements. From the authorities and the media, maybe even from protestors outside or in form of a shit storm online. Appropriate response takes time and energy. With the risk that those are overlooked who keep quiet.

Employees, worker representatives, neighbors, business associates, customers: In a crisis, their need for information and attention is high. To address this need is relatively easy – because, in a crisis, the necessary facts and messages are lying on the table.

Assembling relevant facts and striking the right tone is basic communications workmanship. Good timing helps. The point, when things are stressful, is not to forget your friends.

5. Initiate change

A fundamental question, once calm is restored, is: Has the crisis caused lasting damage, or can it help the organization to learn and grow?

A crisis will stress structures and call for change. A smart management team will recognize both: The need to draw conclusions and the opportunity to change things for the better. Not in a matter of a few weeks. Rather over the course of a year or two.

The communications function can promote and help shape this process. It is imperative that objectives are completely understood, fully supported and promoted consistently. In all this, an external partner, unbiased and unconstrained, can be of great benefit.

If you would like to discuss crisis communications in some more detail, give us a call. Without obligation. And certainly in complete confidentiality.  +49 221 9984630 or using our contact form.


(Foto: skeeze/pixabay)