Taking the Lead on Communication Before, During, and After a Crisis
When it comes to crisis communication failures, one does not have to look very far into history to find a standout example. Most recently the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, revealed what can transpire when a crisis communication plan is not in place or followed. The official timeline of events was changed so many times in the hours and days that followed that it was hard to keep track. This led to a distrust of the information presented.
Unfortunately, it seems society is almost plagued by tragic events that rock our world then are worsened by a lack of transparency and botched communication in the crisis management process. Broad social media access and a 24-hour news cycle increase awareness and judgment around these events, potentially triggering embarrassment or a lack of trust that could result in serious damage to the business. It is more important than ever that everyone’s crisis communication plans are robust, well defined, tested, and regularly refined.
In its simplest form, crisis communications can be defined as the protocols a business or team uses to relay information during an event or incident. This could be something that happens over the span of hours, days, or weeks. Many emergencies start small and develop into a larger incident. Because of that, your crisis communications plan should be scalable and ready to adapt to a rapidly changing situation.
According to the 2021 Global Crisis Survey by PWC Research, businesses that experienced crisis during the global COVID-19 pandemic said that the most important lessons they learned or would do differently in the future would be to work more diligently to modify communication/stakeholder engagement (38 percent), actively work on increasing resilience (69 percent) and focus on implementing an after-action review process for future incidents (69 percent). Of the businesses surveyed, 62 percent stated that they used an established crisis response and communications plan during the pandemic. In addition, 77 percent stated that they altered their strategy in response to the crisis.
The Stages of Crisis Communications
Crisis communications can be unpacked into three distinct stages: before, during, and after an incident. Each period has its own unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to ensuring your message is well thought out, timely, and relevant.
Before the Crisis
Prepare, prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. The best time to conceive of and test your crisis communications plan is before an incident emerges. Any glitches in your message technology or delivery methods can be identified at this time and fixed, as opposed to creating another problem for your team while you’re attempting to handle the initial crisis.
Crises are becoming more common, and they are lasting longer. Events of increasing strength and duration like Hurricane Ian in 2022 or the long-term reputational impact BP oil spill in 2010 reflect the need for robust and flexible preparation. For more effective preparedness, think “when, not if” when building incident response plans. In my days as a law enforcement shift sergeant working in a rural environment, I would use my downtime to think through scenarios while on patrol, and as a corporate security professional, I kept up this thought exercise.
- How and what would I communicate to my team if we had a critical incident occur?
- What if the incident occurred in a spot where the terrain would affect communications?
- What if weather conditions prevented or interfered with communications?
- What is my message to my team going to be, and how can I use our existing crisis communications plan to make sure that they have access to timely and critical information?
- How would I communicate to my leadership about an incident?
It is important to know ahead of time what your resources and capabilities are and how those items will be tested, stretched, and depleted as you encounter a crisis. Is your plan to communicate your message ready to accept those challenges and adapt to an ever-changing environment? Calls for crisis communications tend to happen at night, in bad weather, with extreme temperatures. Rare is the crisis that occurs when it is sunny, 70 degrees, and with no outside factors challenging your communications capabilities and response.
If your crisis communications plan includes sending out electronic communications to your employees via text message or email, it is important to consider how you would get the same message out if those platforms were unavailable to you because of infrastructure damage or failure. Ask yourself:
- Is your fallback plan to use word of mouth via team leaders or will you rely on the media to get your message out?
- Are you going to use pre-printed information and how would you reproduce or distribute that?
- What are the important talking points that should be prioritized?
- Are your employees instructed not to speak with the media and do they have access to information on who should be talking to the media?
It is important and vital to have one person or a dedicated team all saying the same thing to the media, as well as being a single point of contact for your internal and external stakeholders. This avoids misinterpretation of information and allows for consistency in messaging. If the media can interview an employee who tells them one thing and your messaging says another, you just created another crisis on top of the original one.
In 2018, David Woods of The Ohio State University published a paper on the idea of “graceful extensibility,” which he defined as the ability of a system to extend its capacity to adapt when surprise events challenge its boundaries.
Woods explained that all systems can experience surprises and unexpected issues, but companies can test and change their boundaries by adapting to challenges early and focusing on planning for increased resilience. In this view, resilience comes from having a system in advance that can handle various classes of surprises.
For more effective preparedness, think ‘when, not if’ when building incident response plans.
In terms of surprises and changing boundaries, there is possibly no better example of this than the famed Apollo 13 space mission in 1970 in which NASA’s systems and boundaries were tested after an oxygen tank failed, an explosion depleted life support systems, and the mission to land on the moon had to be aborted. Because of NASA mission controllers’ ability to adapt and exercise graceful extensibility in their systems, they were able to return the crew safely to Earth. The mission was ultimately dubbed a successful failure.
Companies or systems with low graceful extensibility tend to be brittle and collapse, because they are unable to handle disturbances that challenge them. Your plan, as conceived, may not work for a particular situation, but flexibility will allow your organization to adapt. By testing and stretching your boundaries through planning, exercising, making changes, re-planning, and exercising again, you’re stretching that muscle and preparing it for inevitable surprises as opposed to only flexing it when you need to run at full speed.
During a Crisis
Crisis mode has been activated. As much as you might want to, do not panic at that 2:00 a.m. phone call telling you about storm damage or a broken fire main. As a crisis is happening or evolving, it is imperative that your communications be clear and simple.
“Total transparency is essential,” wrote psychologist Jeremy Hunter of the Drucker School of Management. “Leaders who withhold information essentially shoot themselves in the foot because that breeds mistrust and uncertainty.”
Shareholders and the public will want to know how you are responding and are you responding in a way that shows corporate responsibility. If the incident is something that you as a company are responsible for or created, transparency will be paramount. British Petroleum (BP) was faulted in 2010 for a severe lack of transparency in their willingness to accept responsibility for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That crisis communications failure only added to the overall disaster and severely impacted their bottom line as well as their reputation.
In communicating during a crisis, it is crucial to provide consistent messaging to your teams, customers, and key constituents about what you know, what you don’t know, and what process you are using to get answers. Not only is it important to send out information, but you must be set up to receive information and filter what is coming to you. Asking questions and challenging the data will give you better information to empower decision making.
When taking in information about a situation that you will eventually need to communicate out, it is imperative to be aware of confirmation bias. To avoid this, ensure you are considering all viewpoints, not just the ones that fit your plans. If you’re not thinking about opposing viewpoints, someone else is, and it could negatively impact your organization by not acknowledging those views. If, during a crisis, your team is telling you they can absolutely deliver on established goals, but you are not engaging any of the functional groups that support those operations—such as safety, human resources, or facilities—you are not gathering all the relevant information. What if facilities cannot provide adequate maintenance support during the crisis to deliver on those goals? Establishing early relationships with these functions will streamline the flow of essential information in and out.
With social media giving people instant access to information and opinions, the need to ensure your messaging is based on the latest and most correct information is even more imperative.
You don’t have to share everything you know with outside groups, but what you do share must be the truth. Consider the psychological impact of the information you share. Your crisis communication messaging should demonstrate the moral and ethical compass for your organization as you move through the event and beyond.
When it comes to sharing numerical data during an event, leaders should keep in mind that most people involved in a crisis have trouble processing information when it comes to numbers or basic math while the event is ongoing. That doesn’t mean leaders should avoid sharing numeric information, wrote Ellen Peters at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.
“Providing numbers corrects misconceptions,” she wrote. “People are far more likely to overestimate certain risks if you don’t give them numbers.”
Keep the numbers simple and consistent. If your plan calls for communicating a percentage of your manufacturing capability that is still up and running, make sure you continue to update that number and communicate any changes at each point in your communications cycle.
To ensure that your messaging is effective, it must be in real-time or as close to it as possible and accessible to those who need it anywhere, at any time. In today’s digital age, it is easier to plan for this and deliver a message across multiple platforms with one push of a button. People in a crisis have come to expect that they will have instant access to relevant and timely information.
Along those lines, you must ensure that your messaging is reaching the relevant audience. Messaging for your employees may not be the same messaging for your customers or the public. Your employees will want to know when or where to report to work, how and when they will be paid, or what counseling services and support systems are available for them. Your customers will want to know when you can deliver products or services again, while vendors will want to know when they will be able to deliver items and be paid. Shareholders and the public will want to know how you are responding and whether you are responding in a way that shows corporate responsibility. Ultimately, you want the information you are sharing to empower easier individual decision making for your team, customers, vendors, or stakeholders.
In a widespread crisis, such as a natural disaster like a hurricane, you may have to tailor your crisis communications around the information that you are receiving from the government, emergency services, or available news media. Do not be afraid to ask questions of your team or external agencies to gather more information that will help you better craft and push out your own messaging. With social media giving people instant access to information and opinions, the need to ensure your messaging is based on the latest and most correct information is even more imperative.
After the Crisis
There will never be a clear definition of when a crisis ends. This will depend on factors that you may not know at any given time of the event. Even after a catastrophic event like a tornado or active shooter situation, the event does not end when the threat is over. The ramifications of the event and ongoing response could take weeks or months.
In August 2020, my community was rocked by a powerful thunderstorm referred to as a derecho. That single storm became the most significant and costliest thunderstorm event in history. Across the U.S. state of Iowa, an estimated 7 million trees were destroyed or knocked down, and property losses topped $11 billion. There was no clear “after” the crisis because parts of the city were without power for 10 days, and some areas still had crisis events like tree and building debris to deal with. Now two years out from the actual event, recovery is still under way.
Your crisis communications plan should account for a prolonged recovery. If necessary, be prepared to offer daily or weekly briefings or press releases regarding your ongoing response. Long-term crisis communications plans should include goals or benchmarks for the rise or reduction of information release. It should also include pre-planned and approved messaging for certain situations. For instance, if during an armed intruder or active shooter crisis response, you need to issue an “all-clear” message to employees, having a message ready to go that has already been vetted by human resources, security, and legal allows for timely communication instead of getting everyone together afterwards to attempt to craft an appropriate message while employees are wondering what is happening.
As you move beyond the initial crisis into the recovery stage, it is important to remember that you are not immune from another crisis developing or being triggered by the first one. The graceful extensibility you practiced in planning allows you to adapt and respond appropriately while moving towards a successful outcome. This is a period of learning and reflection. It can be brutal, but completely worth the effort. Your messaging regarding the aftermath of any crisis or event should continue to follow the basic concepts you followed during the event in that your messaging is timely, transparent, clear, concise, and appropriately targeted.
To learn anything from the event, you must gather data on what parts of your plan worked well, what didn’t work well or at all, and how your plan needs to adapt going forward. Because you worked to exercise and develop your graceful extensibility ahead of time, your changes or adaptations will likely be easier to execute.
Discussions and honest feedback afterwards are key to making this process a reality. Get feedback from your employees, customers, vendors, and stakeholders. This data will not always be favorable, and that is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s necessary. Too many times, these discussions are seen as a blame game, and that perception should be addressed at the very beginning. Make sure that people know going in that this is not a time to decide who is at fault for what, but rather to come together as a functional team and review.
Lessons learned here are invaluable. Consider:
- What systems worked for us and what did we not need?
- What parts of our communications plan did we touch or not touch?
- Are there parts that are outdated and need to be scrapped?
- Did our plan allow for adaptability or was it too rigid?
After-action reports are imperative so that the data collected can be shared and used in a systematic way to improve your basic plan. You may not face the exact same situation ever again, or you could see it again in five years. It is also possible that what worked in this situation may help you in other situations not yet even conceived of.
You did some excellent planning, worked to institute the concept of graceful extensibility in your crisis communications plan, weathered the event, and completed an after-action review. Now it is time to relax, right? Not even close.
As you move beyond the crisis, continuing to evolve and test your crisis communications plan and capability will keep you resilient and adaptable. Flexibility and transparency are key factors in any communications plan. Graceful extensibility is not a “one and done” concept, but rather an ongoing process and not only for your crisis communications plan. You may not face another crisis for two years or you may have another one in two weeks. They are—by their very nature—mostly unpredictable. Knowing that, you want to be able to control as much about them as possible, which includes your plan to communicate effectively in a crisis.
Michael Bailey, Sr., CPP, is a 27-year veteran of law enforcement and security operations. He currently fulfills the role of security control official, overseeing physical security operations for Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.