Managing communication in crisis situations is a bit like a fire brigade in action. Everybody sees vehicles with sirens on, shining helmets and sooty firefighters. Few realise that the foundation of the fire brigade’s work is preventing fires from occurring in the first place, through education, audits and other preventive measures.
We must not limit crisis management to the ability to deal with communication in a situation that is already critical for your organisation. This is a mistake, and almost always significantly reduces the effectiveness of any measures taken.
Complete and effective crisis management is only possible when it's part of the daily work of an organisation. This means that:
- YOU MUST AMASS KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge and skills needed to prevent and manage a crisis must be common throughout the organisation, or must be stored in an accessible and known place;
- MANAGERS MUST MAKE CONSCIOUS DECISIONS. The crisis-prevention must be a key component of managerial decisions in the company;
- STAFF MUST HAVE KNOWLEDGE. The managerial staff who will make up the crisis team must have sufficient knowledge and skills to manage crises;
Crisis management should be carried out continuously, albeit with varying intensity, depending on the situation.
But how much knowledge and skills does an organisation need? Every member of the company must know when and how to notify the crisis team about any danger. This sounds obvious, but in practice it means that all employees must:
- Be alert to potential crisis situations, which means learning what forms they can take and which events to report without exception;
- Know a quick way to report a potential crisis situation;
- Know what information is required when reporting an event which has the potential to go critical.
On top of this managerial staff should be able to prevent crises. Prevention primarily means focusing on aspects related to image, not just the legal or financial ones.
Example: if a nursing home fails to provide payment to their power provider, acting in accordance with the law and their operator principals they in turn will cut off power to the home. However, it doing this would expose itself to allegations that they lack social responsibility. The managers of the company's image should at least be aware of the risk.
Crisis staff, going to help an organisation at risk must be highly skilled. Predispositions such as emotional intelligence, resistance to stress and the ability to work under pressure are vital.
The following are also crucial: knowledge of the typical course of a crisis, knowledge of the needs of stakeholders, and knowing the structure of the company inside-out. Additionally, especially if you don't have external support, you should be able to communicate well with others in your surroundings.
The system exists, but is everyone familiar with it?
When we implement a crisis-management system, we assume that at least 80% of employees in the organisation need to be familiar with it. Familiarising employees with the system can be done through in person training (in large organisations – using cascade communication) or e‑learning. However, a large video conference or ex-cathedra lecture are not good tools for this.
After the training, it is worthwhile checking how the implemented procedure is working. The permeability of communication channels is exceptionally easy to control.
All you need to do is call the helpline, 'pass on' important information, and then see how quickly it reaches the relevant unit in the company and how it gets distorted.
Where do you start?
Most Polish organisations still haven’t implemented a system to manage image-related crises. A good image is increasingly expected not only by consumers, to decide what products and services they use, but also by the stock market, which has introduced mandatory reporting on corporate social responsibility. It is definitely worth getting started on the implementing crisis management procedures today.
Introducing such a system independently is a challenge. You need to start by choosing a coordinator of activities. Usually this is an employee who deals with communication and has direct contact with management. This could be, for example, the company spokesperson, corporate communications manager, or head of the press office.
Then, you should analyse the stakeholder groups and the most-likely and most-serious crises. After this, check how your internal communication works – which channels are reliable, and which tools are used. Only once you gather all this information can you train the team.
Should you seek the support of an external consultant? Employing an experienced partner significantly speeds up the process, and means that the organisation will operate smoothly and efficiently before and during a crisis. In addition, experience tells us that up-keeping the 'company fire brigade' then costs much less. A consultant helps at every stage of implementation and is able to perform many stages independently, more smoothly and faster, due to their experience and know-how.
By Paweł Soproniuk, APR at Neuron Public Relations