Communication is a challenging issue. Too much communication at the wrong time and the intended recipients switch off. Yet too little when it is needed has a much deeper effect and often dents reputations. This is especially true in a crisis situation.
I’ll start by declaring my interest, I have been the communications officer during various crises over a number of years in Scotland, so I’ve probably got my nose a bit closer to the ground than others in critiquing the success and failures of crisis comms.
Similarly for clarity, from an organisational perspective, I believe a crisis is deemed to be anything that has the potential to disrupt normal working practice.
I recently got caught up in a crisis following the excessive snowfall from the “Beast from the East”. I was scheduled to fly from an international airport which was subsequently shut down because of the bad weather.
Thankfully the airport and the travel firm I booked through both had active social media channels and real-time email and website updates to keep us appraised of the rescheduled flight time. Yahay! If I kept checking, I’d know what was going on.
Yet in reality this was far from bliss. There was clearly little communication behind the scenes as neither airport not tour operator, throughout the entire period co-ordinated their messages, so while I received emails postponing the flight then cancelling it altogether, the tour operator website was still confirming a revised flight time.
As the airport extended its closure to 6pm on the day we were supposed to travel, I received an email (from the airport) saying that my check-in desk was open – which it wasn’t. I can go on, but you get the picture.
The lack of clarity around what was happening and lack of contact with officials offering updates led to more and more passengers growing disgruntled and distressed.
I would never profess it’s easy in a crisis to communicate, but in incidence like this there are key principles to follow, whether you are updating in person, or online through a website or automated text/email service.
- Don’t promise more than you can deliver – say what you can, when you can and if you don’t know when things will change, set a realistic timeframe to make your next update.
- Be cognisant of what your partners are saying on the same issue – providing a united front with others involved in successfully managing the crisis can only add to both company’s reputations.
- Be accessible and maintain contact – everyone is suspicious of a faceless organisation, so respect that this crisis affects people and business and use it as an exercise in good relationship management and be available, in person if you can. The more senior the representative, the more seriously you are seen to be taking the situation.
- Don’t shy away from delivering the bad news – deliver it with as much conviction as the good news. More often than not it’s the lack of any communication that frustrates.
- Be aware of the immediacy of social media and the possibility of a very different update being provided by others. For example, an aid agency stepped in offering blankets and tinfoil cloaks to stranded passengers. It was a welcome gesture for the passengers but others took to Twitter decrying the double standards where other people are left to freeze while sleeping on the streets on the neighbouring city every night without blankets or cloaks.
- Focus on the activity you can control – in the world of 24/7 communications, it’s a task and a half to keep up. During crisis and major incidents, professional communicators are more often than not, no longer feeding the media the story. The media has already got their eye witnesses providing in-situ accounts from those at the scene, capturing it second by second on their mobile phones. This is another good reason for saying as much as you can, when you can, because if you try to deny the significance of an event for example, and the footage clearly shows the massive scale of it, your integrity will suffer and you’ll be viewed as an unreliable source or untrustworthy contributor. Neither of which will enhance your reputation.
For us, the last straw came when the tour operator sent a text at 9am the next day to make sure we were enjoying our holiday –we still had another 10 hours to wait until we finally took off. It reiterates the need for the right messages to go out at the right time, whatever channel or social media platform is used.