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Effective Communication in Crisis Management (Part 1)

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

effective communication in crisis management

The serenity of a summer day abruptly turned into chaos and catastrophe. It was late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, an exceedingly destructive category 5 storm, battered the Gulf Coast of the United States. At that time, the immense power of the hurricane was grossly underestimated by both meteorologists and public officials. Over 1,800 lives were lost. With financial aftermath surpassing $150 billion, Katrina ranked as the most costly natural disaster ever witnessed in the United States. The human cost could not be quantified.

Hurricane Katrina serves as a significant case study in emergency and crisis management. The sheer magnitude of the storm and the lack of preparedness and coordination in New Orleans provide us with numerous lessons to take away.

To begin with, the city did not follow the National Hurricane Center's direction to announce an emergency evacuation right after the storm hit. Instead, this crucial decision was delayed until the following day. Moreover, vital communication systems experienced widespread failures, leaving millions of individuals unable to use their cell phones or landlines to send or receive emergency messages. Numerous people found themselves moving between shelters in search of essential supplies such as water, food, and security, leading to a distressing display of crowd psychology.

During times of crisis, three vital elements become essential: effective leadership, a strategic decision-making platform, and reliable communication channels. Unfortunately, in the early stages of managing the Hurricane Katrina crisis, all of these aspects were lacking. The significance of fast, effective, and competent operations cannot be overstated when it comes to emergency management. Like the "golden hour" in medicine, addressing the problem promptly helps prevent further complications that could intensify the damage.

In light of the many lessons we can extract from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, in this article, I would like to talk about communication during and after a crisis: Why it should be a priority, when should we start communicating, and how we can deliver our message clearly to minimize unnecessary confusion. When you find yourself in the centre of a natural disaster or come across adverse accidents or scandals, whether you run a mom-and-pop bakery or a multi-billion corporate, the speed and clarity of your communication will significantly influence your outcomes.

Perception vs. Fact

Allow me to ask you a question: How do you define the fact 'fact'? Does your interpretation of a 'fact' align with the collective understanding shared by others? If not, what factors contribute to the variation?

Let me straight get to the point: Perception and fact are two distinct entities. Fact takes time and effort to gain, cross-check, and publish. On the other hand, perception is instant spontaneously emerges as individuals process the information they have gathered and filter it through their personal lens of understanding, experience, temperament, biases, and more.

Nature abhors a void. When facts are not promptly communicated, people quickly construct their own perceptions and take them as truths. Once an incorrect perception takes hold, it becomes immensely challenging to rectify. Consequently, in the context of crisis management, effective communication plays a vital role in controlling the perceptions of others.

A crisis comes in all shapes and sizes. We often have a tendency to assume that calamities happen to others and not ourselves. However, ample evidence from human history disproves that notion. Even business leaders who are well-informed often struggle to acknowledge the presence of a crisis. Whether it is a result of outright denial, naive optimism, or plain ignorance, such choices and attitudes usually lead to substantial consequences. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of any responsible and competent leader to awaken to reality and respond to it professionally.

In times of crisis, the public anticipates their leaders to assume a commanding role. The moment a disaster unfolds, mitigation and restoration work must start immediately. At the same time, the wheels of response should be set in motion.

When Should Communication Start?

effective communication in crisis management

In preparation of the official response, three principal questions must be addressed: 1. What do we know? 2. When did we know it? 3. What are we going to do about it?

The timing of communicating facts to the public presents a challenge for leaders. It is especially challenging when information is limited and circumstances are rapidly shifting. Waiting too long, you are going to face defamatory perceptions and criticism. Acting too soon, you may lack a firm footing.

Although there is no formal guideline, as a general principle, sooner is preferable. In practical terms, adopting the 8-hour rule can be worth considering. This approach has gained traction among major corporations like Proctor & Gamble, Kraft Foods, and British Petroleum. It means the process of harnessing essential organizational resources and providing the crisis communication plans needs to happen within the first 8 hours following the occurrence of the incident.

We are living in a media-saturated world. Various forms of online communication will not only deliver the news (as to what's happened) but also skepticism to millions of people around the world at lightning speed.

Negative news spreads more rapidly than positive news. It is deeply embedded in human behaviour as negative stories are shared with greater frequency. In the age of the internet, it is imperative to actively champion yourself and your advocates. If you don't take the initiative, others will do it for you.

Keep in mind that crisis management is closely related to managing the perceptions around you and your business. Perception is formed instantly. Therefore, your swift, intentional action is a must. To accomplish this, you need to press the truth (as opposed to telling the truth). Pressing implies speed, proactivity, strength, and confidence while telling can be defensive, slow, and passive.

Benjamin Franklin's words impart a lasting lesson: "It takes many good deeds to build a reputation and only one bad to lose it." Don't let a wrong perception of your business diminish your fame and career. If you don't stand up for the truth, nobody else will.

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