Communication strategies that are effective in a crisis
When there’s a fire, you have to put it out. Let’s get the fire extinguisher ready! Does everyone know where it is? And who knows how to use it? And can everyone do it equally well? Have you ever practiced? And does the thing actually still work? These are just a few questions, and they are asked at the wrong time. When there’s a fire, you have to put it out and do it fast. There is no time left for questions. And that’s exactly why this situation is particularly critical. Just because the janitor comes running with a syringe under his arm doesn’t mean that the flames will be extinguished in no time. And it also doesn’t mean that the damage will not increase because he may have the wrong extinguishing agent with him and the good man doesn’t know how to handle the equipment optimally.
When a company gets into a crisis situation, you have to keep a cool head. You should be able to draw from as many preparations and preliminary considerations as possible. Crises are often predictable. It is possible to anticipate that they have to be dealt with. The main uncertainty is about when a critical situation will occur and to what extent. Then it’s a matter of setting all info channels to input and reaching courageously into the drawer to get out the prepared intervention plans. What is to be done, how and by whom?
Is the crisis a crisis?
What is the indispensable first step? As simple as it can be: One must consider whether there is a crisis at all. There is always bad news. Some affect the entire industry, a few also affect your own company. But where does it escalate into a crisis? And even crises are a normal part of any company’s history. So there must be an authority that determines that a previously unpleasant situation is somehow getting out of hand (or already is) and that countermeasures are needed which differ from the daily routine. This board is at the executive level, but there are teams in corporate communications whose job it is to hear the grass grow. Those who are sitting high up in the fire alarm tower to be the first ones to spot a forest fire. The ones who talk to the media, fire up the social media channels and put out the other news. Then, at the latest, the janitor is banned from talking!
The second step will be the right communication strategy for the ensuing actions. And there, among the royal roads, there are four different paths for which you have to decide primarily. The worst, to be clear, is the ostrich method: bury your head in the sand, do nothing and then look around in amazement when not one stone is left standing on another.
Everything is under control
To the gallows with fake news
Phenotypically confusable, yet completely different at the core, is to actively deny the crisis. If everything is normal, there is no downside for the company. The same is true if the crisis exists but has no impact on the company. The disruption of supply chains in many industries in the aftermath of the Corona pandemic is objectively there. But not so important if all raw materials are available in the region for one’s own company. If this corresponds to the truth, one will do well with it. But if you are on thin ice, you can take a nasty tumble. If the production lines in your own factory suddenly come to a standstill, you will be affected. Trust can only be generated with correct news. If the principle of honesty towards the media and stakeholders applies to corporate communications anyway, it becomes a lifeline for crisis communications. Fake news can turn it into a gallows rope.
Fire is out, at least almost
If things are the other way around, a ‘diminish-strategy’ is more suitable. “Yes, it came as a surprise, but we did everything humanly possible to minimize the damage.” The impact of the crisis is presented as less than suspected, the company’s complicity as subordinate. On the contrary, all the company’s forces have now been pulled together to minimize any disadvantages for customers or the product. The fire is not yet out, but “it is only smoldering, and beyond our reach at that.”
And the fourth of the main strategies is to look ahead. The company acknowledges the existence of the crisis, its part in it, and the negative impact on everyone affected. But at the same time, it shows an effort to make positive changes. The message: “It was a mistake. We apologize.” From this point of view, one creates an emotional basis, for a future trusting cooperation, a deepened customer relationship and the confidence among stakeholders. Often, however, you can’t go down this path, or you may take on more blame than is appropriate. It would also look very unfortunate if there has already been a similar case in the company’s history. Only a really incompetent organization fails twice at the same thing.
Has worked as crisis management spokesman for a trade association, worked for national daily newspapers and teaches Crisis Communication and Online-PR as a PR expert.