In a crisis, effective decisions and actions must precede communication. The reality is that once the instant of crisis has occurred, the process of recovery has begun. Recovery can be quite complicated and lengthy. The operational response goal is to put the focus truly on the first 1-3 hours of a crisis to assure that tone, tempo, scope, and intent are established powerfully and constructively. Emergency communication response priorities must address appropriate operational action and match the expectations of all potential audiences who could be affected or afflicted by your actions or by the crisis situation.
Emergencies require nearly simultaneous communication activity in all priority response areas. Effective execution is a primary concern precisely because time is limited. The more promptly actions are taken in response, the more quickly recovery can occur and production of victims can cease.
A five-level strategy makes communication a process that management can understand, relate to, and, most importantly, buy into. Sensible response strategies lead to sensible communication actions. Such a set of priorities:
- Is the most effective way to contain, control, and reduce the visibility impact of emergent situations and much of the resulting reputational damage;
- Tends to reduce the ability of the media to alter the outcomes of crisis situations because those affected hear from you directly, thus avoiding the filtration, inaccuracy, or emotionalism news reporters bring to high-profile situations; and, is, most importantly, the way your mothers, employees, neighbors, and the victims expect you to provide assistance, assurance, and critical information.
Speed of communication is essential. Be slow, be inconsistent, be hesitant, be timid, be defensive, hold back and – even if your response is operationally flawless – it will be perceived always as slow, sloppy, inconsistent...you get the picture. The response axiom is: Speed beats smart. The reality is that nothing is sillier and more damaging than a bunch of smart people trying to explain why they failed or refused to act promptly.
Priority #1: Stop the Production of Victims
Ending the production of victims is the most powerful way to get control of a crisis. Yes, if it is leaking, foaming, stinking, burning, flaming, or exploding, the very first priority is to get the emergent situation under control, stabilized, or eliminated, but this is precisely because it will stop victim production. Our concern about the media finding out and other related communication activity is clearly of secondary importance in the face of an emergency that is yet to be brought under control or well managed.
Management requires those who give advice in these urgent situations to convey a sense of priority order or sequence of decisions and actions to make or support response recommendations that make sense in view of current circumstances.
Priority #2: Manage the Victim Dimension and Those Most Directly Affected
What we say and what we do for those most directly affected (the victims) – humanely and quickly – are our most important strategic objectives. Effective communication with victims and their families reduces media interest and coverage while building the trust of the community, public and regulatory officials, and those we most care about – our own employees.
The most important steps any organization can take during any emergency or crisis are to:
- Take conclusive action to quickly resolve or stabilize victim issues, problems, or situations being caused by the crisis.
- Act quickly and sensibly to address the needs of victims, survivors and their immediate families, and relatives; to deal with continuing threats to those on-site or nearby; and to begin repairs or remediation of destroyed or damaged physical plant and property as soon as possible.
- Provide emotional support and counseling for victims.
- Communicate and behave with compassion, empathy and sympathy constantly.
Assign responsibility for monitoring the medical and health progress of victims to a top management team or at least a very senior representative of the company. This responsibility will include on-site monitoring at hospitals. In cases of serious injury or death, the families will decide what information is released publicly, if any. Since victims can and often do redefine the careers of senior executives, those executives should have the direct responsibility for managing the victim dimension.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules (http:// www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/ ) establishes patient privacy guidelines that must be followed and in most cases prohibit disclosing patient names and information without patient consent. (General corporate communications are not subject to HIPAA laws.)
Priority #3: Communicate With Employees
After survivors, employees are the crucial audience for crisis communication. Employees need to know their roles during a crisis, particularly if they have crisis-related duties. If they are to continue doing their regular jobs during a crisis, they need to know what is expected of them and how normal operations will be altered for the duration of the crisis. They will want to know what the organization is doing to return to normal conditions, how it will do that, and what “returning to normal” means.
We recommend the 75-word Rule of Communication. This rule means providing frequent 75-word bursts (statements) of information. Studies of information retention indicate that information conveyed in writing or orally that is 75-100 words can be retained by individuals and often repeated with great accuracy, even during sensitive or urgent times. Use the format of a statement and attribute it to someone important in the company, and use these brief, quotable-sized statements before employees and other key audiences.
Seventy-five words is approximately 30 seconds speaking time we recommend the 75-word Rule of Communication...providing frequent 75-word bursts of information (in English-speaking cultures). This approach will quickly begin to script your employees and anyone else coming into contact with the information, which will enable you to maintain some control of a story appropriately as events unfold. Remember, employees rarely want to know every detail (or even many of the details); they just want to know that the people leading the organization are on top of the situation and are willing to talk about what is going on. Employees now would actually have reliable, approved information when someone asks them.
Even though employees may not talk directly to the media, they are often sources of information for people outside the company. To employees, it seems natural to give the “inside scoop” to families, friends, neighbors, and others in the community. This type of information frequently becomes public. You want this information to get out from inside.
- Employees see and hear the key themes, messages and examples the company is using. This knowledge helps keep non-media audiences accurately informed.
- When talking with employees, emphasize the necessity of referring all media inquiries to the designated spokesperson. Emphasize that they need to be courteous if called or approached. The best employee response to a media inquiry is: “Let me connect you to a company spokesperson who will have the most up-to-date information.”
Priority #4: Communicate With Those Indirectly Affected
Persons affected indirectly include survivors, neighbors, government officials and regulators, community leaders, customers, suppliers, shareholders, allies, partners, collaborators, and co-inventers or co-marketers.
Many crisis situations will mandate contact with government officials at various levels. If media coverage of the event is nationwide, the company should be in touch with key elected state and federal officials and regulatory agencies to ensure that they have accurate and prompt information to be prepared for possible media questions. The type of crisis will dictate the extent of such notifications:
- Corporate Relations will coordinate the regulatory reporting process.
- Government Relations will notify elected officials.
- Locally the Facility/Plant Manager, if available, (otherwise his or her backup) will coordinate with the Community Relations Manager in deciding which local officials to contact.
- The regions will coordinate with the Community Relations Officer in deciding which local officials to contact.
- Establish a priority and process for keeping all indirectly affected audiences, groups, and individuals informed.
Priority #5: Communicate With the Self-Anointed, Self-Appointed Media: New and Old; Citizen Journalists Who Opt In; and Other Communications Organizations
Terrible events will be followed by terrible stories. How you behave and how responsive you can be will determine the tone and quality of media coverage your organization receives and deserves. An empathetic, prompt, professional approach will help to ensure the best possible coverage under the circumstances.
To prepare for and be ready to accommodate the extraordinary demands of many publics when crises occur, it is crucial to establish a crisis communication policy, as the impact of social media and traditional media relations requirements have become very similar. However, some fundamental rules remain crucial and should be applied:
- All crises are local and, therefore, local media, audiences, victims, and those directly affected must take precedence over all other interests, including national media.
- The web is the greatest and most powerful tool for dealing with all media response situations. The impact of the web is powerful, immediate, 24/7, can help manage the messages and calm things down.
- Finding the truth is extremely difficult. The truth itself is about 15% facts and data and 85% emotion and point of reference. The truth is unique for each victim and receiver of information. In crises, facts and data, as well as emotions and point of reference, change very rapidly, therefore truth winds up being a moving target for everyone involved and affected. In the early moments of crisis, even early hours of the crisis, so little is actually known by so many, for so long that finding the truth is extraordinarily difficult.
- What we do know is the response procedure and process that we’ll be undertaking. This we can talk about until more reliable information is obtained.
Communicators need to be ready to constantly and continuously update the information they’re receiving to accommodate both the search for truth and the interim satisfaction of every stakeholder group, victim, affected bystander, and government official. This is truly why we call it crisis communication.
About the Author
James Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, advises, coaches, and counsels the men and women who run corporations and organizations through extraordinary problems and critical high-profile circumstances. PR Week listed him as one of 22 “crunch-time counselors who should be on the speed dial in a crisis.” He is the author of Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management (Rothstein Publishing, 2013), which has been chosen by Soundview Executive Summaries as one of the 30 Best Business Books of 2013.