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Navigating the Crisis: Mastering Effective Communication Strategies

Author Siobhan Bardet
Published 12 Dec 2023
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A man had died. It happened during the event and so it constituted a crisis.

Understanding the dynamics of a crisis

As far as crises go, deaths are actually quite straightforward in terms of communications. They are the worst-case scenario and, as such, crisis comms teams prepare for them thoroughly.

Death, resignation, prosecution, natural disaster, bankruptcy, mass casualties, guerrilla marketing, cyberattack. Some of these may seem far-fetched for a day at the football, but you’d be surprised. “As if a roof would ever actually fall on someone’s head,” one team chortled as they played out the scenario in a crisis exercise. Fast forward nine weeks and they were writing a holding statement for that exact scenario (false ceiling panel, not steel beams, but you get the point…) as it played out in real life on site.  

Building the Crisis Communications Plan (CCP) 

Preparation for mega-events takes years. From World Expos to sporting World Cups to Heads of State meetings, crisis communications is just one element of thousands, but it is absolutely crucial.  
  
We rehearse and rehearse. We conduct spokesperson training, tabletop exercises, simulations, and full-blown test events. All the relevant people attend – from the comms team to the divisional chiefs, along with the emergency services and members of the government comms teams. Preparing for a crisis is treated with the utmost seriousness. It needs to be because when a crisis hits, an organisation doesn’t have the luxury of time. In fact, from a communications standpoint, if you haven’t anticipated the crisis, you haven’t done your job properly.  

Now of course it is not possible to predict all the details of any calamity, but any comms professional worth their salt should have completed an audit of the event and organisation, including the political landscape, in which a list of all the possible issues that could occur in the lead-up to, during or post-event is compiled.   
  
From there, the crisis communications plan (CCP) is created and – this bit is important – the crisis comms team appointed. Not everyone is suited to working in crises. The best, most accomplished communications professional may not have the mental wherewithal to be looking at worst-case scenarios day in, day out. And then there’s your intelligence gathering/monitoring team. Again, continually trawling for negative chatter in the news, on social media or among stakeholders, about your own organisation is not for everyone.  
  
As part of the CCP, we create processes and systems so that when crises occur, everybody knows exactly what to do. The problem with many processes is that they are based on obtaining and sharing information in writing.   

The Power of Direct Communication 
A man had died. We needed the facts, swiftly. A holding statement announcing the news, expressing condolences, and sharing operational impact needed to be written (in several languages), approved and disseminated.  
  
The fastest way to obtain information is not, generally, to fire off an email or other form of written communication and wait. Yet that is how many processes are built. It is understandable; many people feel more comfortable acting on written instructions, particularly in times of high stress. And a written record is important for audit purposes, although that’s where a crisis log comes in.  
  
No, the fastest way to obtain information is to speak to people. Yet there is often a reluctance, even amongst communications experts, to pick up the phone and talk to someone. “I’ve sent them a message, I’ll wait for them to come back to me…”  
  
In a crisis, there is no waiting for someone to open your message.   
  
“Don’t sit behind the system. Talk to each other to solve problems,” the director of operations urged the 30+ function heads during the post-crisis Lessons Identified session.  
  
A man had died. It was natural causes, but it happened during the event and so it constituted a crisis.  
 

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