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  • Article
  • Crisis Management

Enhancing Crisis Communication: Strategies for Effective Oil Spill Response

Discover proven principles for crisis communication in the context of oil spill response. Explore how effective crisis communications planning can mitigate damage and uphold reputation

  • By Emma Smillie
  • avr. 6, 2022
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Enhancing Crisis Communication: Strategies for Effective Oil Spill Response

Crisis management and crisis communications can feel daunting for both communications professionals and those in crisis management teams working alongside those looking after crisis communications. I remember the first few times I participated in crisis exercises at OSRL. I'm not ashamed to say I was a bit overwhelmed. 

Over the last few years, it has felt a little like we have been in a constant crisis for many of us. COVID aside, over the last couple of years, companies across the globe have needed to deal with various crises. 

In the current landscape, we seem to be perpetually on the brink of what can be considered a 'perma-crisis' environment. This state is defined by relentless volatility, including fluctuating oil prices, geopolitical tensions, environmental concerns, and stringent regulatory changes. These factors can transform even minor operational disruptions into severe crises, posing complex challenges for reputation management.

Scenario planning and horizon scanning are essential and can identify response principles before a crisis. Companies that are unprepared and respond slowly are most at risk of reputational damage in a crisis. 

A crisis jeopardises the company's public image and can lead to significant financial losses. Implementing a robust crisis management plan is essential; it signals to stakeholders, including customers and competitors, that your organisation is proactive, transparent, and reliable in handling emergencies.

A well-formulated crisis management strategy, including crisis communications, ensures your company maintains its credibility during challenging times, reinforcing trust among current clients and attracting potential customers.

Conversely, poor crisis management can have detrimental effects. Mishandling a situation can erode customer trust and could escalate to legal complications. Therefore, a comprehensive and well-executed crisis management plan is beneficial and necessary to safeguard your reputation.

People exercising Crisis Communication with laptops and headsets

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Crisis Communication: Challenges and Strategic Insights

Crisis communication planning and execution present unique challenges organisations must navigate to maintain their reputation and ensure effective information dissemination during emergencies. One of the primary complexities is the information overload that often accompanies a crisis, making it difficult to discern the truth and craft a clear message. The quality of information can be just as problematic as the quantity, leading to confusion and misinformation. The rise of Artificial Intelligence and the growing threat from misinformation campaigns online intensifies this issue, facilitated by the ease of setting up technology to create and spread misinformation.

By nature, crises are unforeseen events that are difficult to plan for in detail. This unpredictability necessitates a flexible and dynamic approach to crisis communication. We live in a zero-tolerance, information-hungry world, with ever-present media searching for a good story. With the growth of social media and citizen journalists, news can sometimes break within minutes, even before an organisation knows all the facts. If companies do not own the narrative, it can spiral out of control. 

Scenario planning and horizon scanning are essential and can identify response principles before a crisis. Companies that are unprepared and respond slowly are most at risk of reputational damage in a crisis. The shareholder value impact of reputation crises has doubled since the advent of social media.

Organisations must identify potential crisis categories based on their industry and history and prepare generic message templates that can be quickly adapted with specific details when a crisis occurs. This preparation allows for a more considered response under pressure, reducing the likelihood of errors and ensuring that communication remains clear and compelling during critical times.

With all the above in mind, I have summarised my ten crisis communication principles to provide actionable insights for enhancing crisis communication strategies.

Mastering the Art of Crisis Communication Plan: Ten Guiding Principles

1. Plan, prepare and exercise

Identify your top three risks and build crisis communication plans that address these risks. These plans should align with your crisis management plan. Regularly exercise the plan at least once a year and test the resources identified, including any external ones. Exercises identify any weaknesses and improve crisis communication skills. Practising means everyone knows their roles and what is required when an incident happens. 

Make crisis communications a core part of the Crisis Management Team. It is easy to treat communications as a side function, someone to brief once you have made all the decisions. I have been in this position before – it doesn't work. You can't advise on communications strategy without the full context. Besides, we communications professionals are the nagging voice in your ear, asking you to consider the reputational impacts of decisions and the needs of all stakeholders.

Preparation and regular exercises are essential to ensure you are ready to respond effectively to crises. Even with a large and robust crisis management team and process, a team can be uncoordinated and slow to respond without practice. 

Regularly scheduled crisis simulations and drills are particularly beneficial for enhancing crisis communications within organisations. These exercises allow teams to test and evaluate communication strategies across various hypothetical scenarios, from natural disasters to cybersecurity breaches. Such varied testing is crucial for identifying potential weaknesses in communication plans and providing the repetitive practice necessary to build the "muscle memory" that communication teams need to perform efficiently under pressure.

Moreover, conducting these exercises boosts organisational confidence and assurance in crisis communication capabilities. Team members become adept at managing the stress and rapid decision-making required during emergencies, significantly enhancing their effectiveness in real-world scenarios. Clear, concise, and timely communication is critical during a crisis, and regular drills ensure that teams are better prepared to deliver critical messages to all stakeholders, including the public, employees, and the media.

In addition to improving internal readiness, regular drills help organisations meet compliance and regulatory requirements that might be mandatory in specific industries, ensuring that their communication practices adhere to legal standards. Through consistent testing and updating of communication procedures, organisations align with regulatory frameworks and enhance their overall crisis response strategy, making it more robust, efficient, and adaptable to emerging threats.

2. Command the narrative: Openness, swiftness, and honesty

In the fast-paced realm of crisis management, taking control of the narrative is paramount. Keeping quiet is not an option; you need to own the message. Leaving a void allows rumour and speculation to build and gain momentum. 

Crises, while challenging, provide organisations with a crucial opportunity to reinforce trust and credibility through swift, transparent, and truthful communication. When a crisis strikes, an organisation's initial messages can significantly influence public perception and stakeholder confidence.

The first source of communication often becomes the source against which stakeholders will measure all other communications. Building trust is essential when it comes to crisis communications. Communication teams must act quickly to shape the narrative, ensuring that the organisation's voice is the primary source of information.

As the situation evolves, disseminate the latest information and facts widely. Tell the truth and tell it often. Make sure what you are saying is accurate – be 'the' credible source. Quick, open, and honest response benefits the road to recovery and ensures critical stakeholders have all the essential facts.

Transparency during a crisis helps mitigate rumours and misinformation that can flourish without clear communication from the organisation. Organisations can maintain a semblance of control in chaotic situations by providing timely updates and being upfront about what is known, what is not, and the steps they are taking. 

This approach helps manage the crisis more effectively. It strengthens the bonds with stakeholders who appreciate honesty, particularly in times of uncertainty. Moreover, acknowledging the fluidity of situations and being open about ongoing developments can prevent the spread of misinformation, which is now much more of an issue thanks to AI, and keep the public and employees well-informed and engaged.

3. State priorities and focus on these in your communications.

In the throes of a crisis, the ability to prioritise becomes a critical component of effective crisis management, particularly in shaping and controlling the narrative. Clearly defined priorities streamline the decision-making process and guide the messaging to align with the organisation's strategic response. This focus is crucial in the initial hours of a crisis when setting a constructive tone and tempo, which can significantly influence the subsequent public and internal perception.

At OSRL, we use the PEAR acronym – People, Assets, Environment, Reputation for crisis management. The priority in any crisis should be people. You must take immediate action to stabilise the situation and prevent further harm. This primary focus helps control the narrative by demonstrating the organisation's commitment to safety and responsibility. Communicating these actions reassures stakeholders and the public, emphasising that the organisation is taking decisive and compassionate steps to manage the crisis.

Following this, the next crucial step is to focus on any other groups of people directly affected. Effective communication with these groups addresses their immediate needs and concerns, reduces speculation and media frenzy, and fosters trust and credibility. This approach helps mitigate the media's influence over the narrative, as direct communication from the organisation can pre-empt the need for third-party interpretations or sensational reporting. You can then use PEAR to identify other priorities after focusing on people.

4. Facts over assumptions: Avoid speculation, embrace critical information

I can't overstate the significance of accurate and factual communication, particularly in an era where misinformation can spread rapidly, exacerbated by advancements in technology such as artificial intelligence. Ensuring that communication is precise and based on verifiable facts is fundamental to avoiding the detrimental consequences of misinformation. 

In today's digital age, the challenge of maintaining accuracy in communication has intensified with the advent of AI technologies. These tools can generate convincing yet entirely fabricated information, contributing to the rapid spread of misinformation. For instance, AI can produce realistic but fake audio and video content, known as deepfakes, which can be nearly indistinguishable from genuine media. 

This capability makes it more critical to stick to verified facts and double-check sources meticulously before dissemination. By committing to factual accuracy, organisations and individuals can help prevent the proliferation of false information, preserving integrity and fostering a well-informed public. In crises, where quick and effective responses are crucial, sticking to key facts guides proper messaging and shields against the chaos that misinformation might cause.

Stick to the facts; do not sensationalise or speculate. Confirm your actions to resolve the issue and return the business to normal. Communicating every step lets all key stakeholders know the status and trust that you are doing the right thing. Edelman lists sixteen critical attributes for building trust, among which is 'taking responsible actions to address a crisis'. Provide instructing information quickly as well as adjusting and adapting information. Stakeholders need to know what they must do (if applicable) and what you, as an organisation, are doing to address the situation.

Collect and collate the key facts. Then develop the messages. Do not attempt to communicate any unknowns. Do not be afraid to say you do not know the answer. Company spokespeople should refrain from speculating or giving vague answers as a strategy. When the truth is out, and it always comes out, the company may have to explain why it made certain statements, leading to a secondary crisis. Spokespeople should say what they know and are allowed to disclose legally.

5. Consistency is key

Maintaining consistency across all communication channels in crisis communications is paramount for preserving and reinforcing an organisation's trust and credibility. During a crisis, consistent messaging underscores the organisation's stability and reliability, reaffirming core values and strategic responses to the public and stakeholders. This uniformity ensures that regardless of the medium through which individuals receive updates—social media, press releases, or direct communications—they encounter the same clear and cohesive information. This approach bolsters a coherent brand identity during turbulent times. It mitigates the risk of confusion and scepticism arising from inconsistent or contradictory messages.

Messaging must be consistent and stick to the key messages and facts. If there is no new information, say there isn't any. Do not leave a void. Media and other stakeholders may see this as deliberate or try to fill the void. Never say "no comment". Pick the right spokesperson and use them consistently. Your spokesperson should be a senior person in the organisation. It does not have to be the CEO. The nature of the crisis will determine who the most appropriate spokesperson is. Choose thoughtfully based on seniority, industry and corporate knowledge, media skills, and ability to engage the public and engender trust and understanding.

6. Address internal audiences

Effective communication with internal stakeholders during a crisis is paramount, as it forms the backbone of any crisis management strategy. Internal stakeholders, particularly employees, are essential allies in navigating and mitigating a crisis's fallout.

You need them to help you reach out to customers and other stakeholders and recover the business. In most situations, let your employees access the facts before you release them to the outside world or simultaneously. My preference would always be to let employees know first, but recognise there may be occasions where this is impossible.

By engaging employees early and often, organisations can ensure that everyone within the company is aligned on the crisis response strategy, fostering a unified front. This internal alignment is crucial for maintaining a coherent and consistent message across all external communications.

For instance, during a crisis, if all employees understand the situation, the steps the organisation is taking, and the external messaging to the public, they can act as effective brand ambassadors. 

Moreover, engaging employees during a crisis can enhance communication effectiveness by leveraging their insights and feedback. Employees on the front lines often have valuable perspectives that can help refine crisis response strategies. Maintaining open communication channels with internal stakeholders helps manage the crisis more effectively. It supports the organisation in recovering and learning from the incident to strengthen future resilience.

7. Embrace the media: Navigating external channels

The media are not the enemy. I have spoken to too many people who see the press this way. If you treat them well, they can be an ally. The media can get messages and information out to key stakeholders. A media engagement strategy should form a core part of your crisis communications plan; do not avoid them. No comment to a media enquiry is not a good enough response and allows them to create their own story. Spokespeople must be ready to participate in interviews or provide comments at the last minute. And that means regular media training for all key spokespeople.

Engaging with traditional media outlets effectively requires strategic preparation and a clear understanding of managing media inquiries and interviews. Comprehensive preparation is vital. This preparation involves understanding the journalist's intent and the interview context and preparing for the types of questions they might pose. Learning about the journalist's previous work and the outlet's typical audience is beneficial. This background knowledge allows for tailoring responses that resonate with the audience and avoiding jargon that might confuse non-specialist viewers or readers.

Setting a clear agenda before the interview is also crucial. A clear agenda means establishing what topics are open for discussion and which are not, helping steer the conversation towards areas of strength or importance. If a journalist veers off the agreed path, it's essential to redirect them back to the main topics confidently. 

Moreover, developing concise and memorable key messages can significantly enhance communication effectiveness. You should design key messages to be impactful and easily digestible "sound bites" that convey the core values and perspectives of the individual or organisation. This approach clarifies the primary takeaways for the audience and helps maintain control over the narrative during the interview process.

Remember that the media will report anything you say during an interview. ​ Setting the rules and being mindful of what you say is essential. While it may feel like a conversation, giving a media interview is a performance. ​ Follow the golden rules:

  • Treat it as a performance.

  • Prioritise preparation over improvisation.

  • Understand that the media is not there to "sell" your company for you. ​

When managing persistent or complex questions, it's essential to remain composed and use bridging techniques to navigate back to safer grounds without appearing evasive. Repeating key messages calmly and professionally helps reinforce them without seeming defensive. Keeping the interaction professional and courteous throughout helps maintain a positive relationship with the media, even in challenging situations. Organisations and individuals can effectively manage media interactions by focusing on these strategies, ensuring their messages are communicated clearly and effectively in any interview setting.

8. Leverage social media's potential

Social media plays a significant role across all industries; no one is immune. You can't just ignore it and hope it will go away. In 2013, when I came for my interview with OSRL, one question was about social media and how I would respond to comments. We had a good debate; my view then was opposite of that of my interviewers. I remember my answer being the same as now - you can't ignore social media. My interviewers at the time were nervous about engaging with social media. I must have said something right nearly eleven years later, and I'm still here. And social media is an integral part of our crisis communications plans.

Social media has become an indispensable tool in crisis management, serving as a rapid conduit for information dissemination and a platform for collaborative problem-solving. 

Social media facilitates proactive communication and community engagement during crisis preparedness, which is crucial for mitigating risks and enhancing the public's readiness. It also helps build a strong relationship with your community, which you will need in times of crisis. 

In the response phase, the speed and reach of social media become critically important. Social media platforms provide real-time, on-the-ground data crucial for making informed decisions quickly. 

The recovery phase also benefits from social media through sustained community engagement and support networks. 

Best practices for using social media in crises emphasise the importance of clear, consistent, and accurate communication. You should establish protocols for social media use before a crisis occurs, ensuring that messages are verified to avoid the spread of misinformation. 

Engaging with the community through these platforms provides emotional support. It gathers valuable grassroots insights to inform ongoing recovery efforts and future preparedness strategies. This approach underscores the need for a strategic framework that integrates social media into all facets of crisis management, promoting resilience and community solidarity in challenging times.

There is a multitude of social media options out there. Think about where your audience is and pick two or three. Resist the urge to respond to every post unless you have a huge social media team that can manage all channels and respond to all comments. Even then, I suspect it would be a 24/7 effort for a significant time in a full-scale crisis.  

9. Communicate with empathy

Conveying empathy and understanding in crisis communication is crucial for building trust, managing emotions, and fostering positive stakeholder relationships during challenging times. 

Ultimately, in all communication, crisis or not, we talk to people with feelings. Our communications need to consider that human aspect and have that human voice. If you were in the shoes of someone affected by a crisis, what would you want to hear, and how would you like to feel – reassured, respected, understood? It helps to show that you care, empathise with people, and understand their position. 

Cold and unemotional communications will make your brand appear emotionless and devoid of empathy.  Note of caution here on the use of AI… AI tools are helpful for first drafts, but you must ensure you put a human lens on any AI-generated content. The tools have got much better, but they are still a long way from replacing the need for a human touch.

Acknowledge Emotions: Empathy begins with acknowledging the emotions that individuals are experiencing. People may feel fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness in a crisis. Your communications need to recognise these feelings and validate them. Use phrases like:

  • "We understand that this situation is incredibly difficult."

  •  "We share your concern and frustration."

  •  "We're here to support you during this challenging time."

Use Emotional Language: Emotional communication connects on a deeper level. Use words that evoke empathy and compassion:

  • "Our hearts go out to those affected."

  • "We're deeply saddened by the impact."

  • "We're committed to finding solutions together."

Show Understanding: Understand the unique needs and concerns of different stakeholder groups. Employees, customers and the public may have distinct worries. Tailor your messages to address their specific perspectives.

Provide Support and Resources: Offer practical support and resources. Whether it's mental health services, safety guidelines, or financial assistance, show that you care about stakeholders' wellbeing.

Put people first in all your communications, commit to resolving the situation and do not be afraid to use 'sorry'. Although you must be careful and consult with your legal team, using the word sorry can be very powerful.

Equally important is the tone of the communication. Communications teams should craft their messages authentically, reflecting the organisation's commitment to addressing the crisis head-on. This genuine approach should extend beyond external communications to internal stakeholders, who are often the first affected by the crisis and are crucial in maintaining operational continuity. Authentic communications that resonate with employees can foster an environment of mutual trust and cooperation, which is essential for navigating through crises. In essence, taking control of the narrative isn't just about broadcasting information; it's about building a foundation of trust that supports all involved parties through the resolution of the crisis and beyond.

10. Sustaining communication post-recovery

Crisis communications do not necessarily stop when a crisis resolves. There may be lingering effects and a need to manage or rebuild a reputation; it's common for stakeholders to feel a lingering sense of uncertainty or anxiety. Consider the communications and actions you must take to recover the business fully. You should consider this a long-term strategy, as rebuilding a reputation can take time.

Maintaining consistent communication is crucial in reinforcing stability and conveying that the situation is under control. Providing frequent updates also demonstrates a commitment to transparency and accountability, helping to address any remaining doubts or questions stakeholders might have. Regular channels such as newsletters, social media, or town hall meetings are effective for continuing dialogue, allowing for real-time responses and ongoing reassurance.

Trust, often strained during a crisis, can be gradually restored through continued honest communication. Admitting any errors made during the crisis and explaining the steps taken to rectify them can build credibility and show accountability. It's also essential to continue to display empathy and understanding towards those affected, which aids in healing and rebuilding trust. Moreover, sharing positive updates and achievements can help maintain engagement and strengthen community bonds, ensuring stakeholders feel valued and connected. 

Regularly monitoring stakeholder perceptions through sentiment analysis tools or surveys allows organisations to effectively adjust their strategies and communication, ensuring messages resonate well across preferred channels.

To conclude

Ultimately, the principles outlined serve as a robust framework for organisations aiming to strengthen their crisis management and communication tactics. Organisations can enhance their resilience and readiness by embedding these strategies into regular operational protocols, conducting frequent drills, and maintaining flexibility in responses. 

Adopting these practices prepares organisations to handle crises more effectively and ensures they are well-equipped to sustain trust and stability, both internally and externally, long after the crisis has subsided.

To summarise:

  1. Regular crisis communication exercises ensure readiness and enhance team coordination, identifying weaknesses and improving skills for efficient response during actual incidents.

  2. Integrating crisis communications within the Crisis Management Team is essential, enabling communications professionals to advise on strategy and consider reputational impacts effectively.

  3. Proactive, open, and honest communication during a crisis helps control the narrative, builds trust, and mitigates the spread of rumours and misinformation.

  4. Prioritising clear and factual communication in crises prevents misinformation, emphasising the importance of being the primary and credible source of information.

  5. Consistency across all communication channels during a crisis reinforces the organisation's credibility. It ensures that stakeholders receive uniform and precise information.

  6. Engaging with internal stakeholders, especially employees, is crucial for aligning crisis response strategies and maintaining coherent external messaging.

  7. Media engagement is vital in crisis management; treating media as allies rather than adversaries can help effectively control the narrative and disseminate accurate information.

  8. Leveraging social media is imperative for rapid information dissemination and community engagement before, during, and after a crisis.

  9. Communicating with empathy and understanding during a crisis fosters positive relationships and helps manage stakeholders' emotions effectively.

  10. Sustained communication post-crisis is critical to rebuilding trust and reputation, requiring consistent updates and transparent dialogue with stakeholders.

Remembering that communication is just one piece of the puzzle is essential. You can't communicate your way out of a crisis you have created through poor judgment or avoidable errors. Reputations take years to build and moments to destroy.

An organisation must act rapidly, decisively, and with integrity in a crisis. Even the best communications can't hide a poor crisis response.


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