Ten Principles of Crisis Communication
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 can remember the first few times I participated in crisis exercises at OSRL. I'm not ashamed to say I was a bit overwhelmed. I have more than 20 years experience in marketing and communications and the thought of being involved in a real, fast-moving crisis is still a slightly daunting one. And I'm in a much better position now than 20 years ago in terms of knowledge and experience.
This article is the second version of my article on crisis communications. I wrote the first one and then decided against publishing it. Why am I being open about that? Because I realised that I had completely ignored my own advice and not written from a human perspective the first time around.
This realisation came after my colleague Dave Rouse shared an article written by Alistair Campbell covering the same topic. Here's the article if you would like to read it.
Alistair Cambell is a writer, communicator, and strategist best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman, press secretary, and director of communications and strategy. As I was reading it, politics aside, what struck me was how his passion for communications and his personality came through. With this in mind, I scrapped my original article and rewrote it.
Reflecting on this, I do believe if there is one thing you should take away from my article it is this - ultimately, in all communication, crisis or not, we are talking to people who have feelings. So our communications need to consider that human aspect, have that human voice.
Any crisis communications should tap into the very essence of this. If you were in the shoes of someone affected by a crisis, what you would want to hear and how you would like to feel – reassured, respected, understood. You can follow all my principles below and completely ignore the empathy point, and your communications will likely fail.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister is an example of why empathetic communications works.
The world first witnessed and admired Ardern’s empathy during the Christchurch massacre in March, 2019. An Australian man opened fire targeting two mosques in Christchurch, where Muslims were gathering for their afternoon prayer. He killed 51 people.
In less than 24 hours, Ardern was on the ground in Christchurch. She wore a black headscarf as a sign of respect, and comforted devastated men and women. At that moment she felt the tragedy first as a human being and a leader. Her role as a politician was secondary. During COVID-19, when announcing lockdown, she appeared dressed in cozy, at home clothes apologising for her attire as “it is a messy business, putting a toddler to bed”. She was instantly relatable, likeable and conveyed a message of ‘we are in this together’. New Zealand managed to avoid the high level of COVID cases experienced in other countries. Many attribute this to Jacinda Ardern’s authentic and empathetic leadership style.
For many of us, over the last couple of years, I think we feel like we have been in a constant crisis. I remember writing the 99th internal communications COVID update and, with hindsight, tempting fate by writing the very sentence – this is the 99th update, I sincerely hope there won't be a 100th. A few weeks later, Omicron came into the UK, and the 100th update came out. Lesson learned – never tempt fate, especially in writing.
COVID aside, over the last couple of years, companies across the globe have needed to deal with various crises. Some were due to uncontrolled factors, others due to a lack of preparedness or a mistake. Most carried a level of reputational risk and led to a need for crisis communications.
Scenario planning and horizon scanning are essential and can identify response principles before a crisis event. 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.
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 take control of the narrative, it can quickly spiral out of control.
So with all the above in mind, I have summarised my ten crisis communication principles.