Successful crisis communication
Chris Webb gives us his tried and tested steps to communicating successfully in a crisis
Hello. My name is Chris Webb. I’m an Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communication here at Crest Advisory. Today I’m going to talk to you about effective crisis communications.
When disaster or a crisis strikes, it can often be extremely daunting and challenging for organisations. But what lets them down is their ability to respond to a crisis effectively. How many of you have effective crisis communication plans in place? I’m sure that most of you will say that you have. But if you look at the world of technology, it is moving at such a pace, with developments in different social media and digital media platforms. So if your plans were not reviewed or updated in the last six months, the reality is, I’m afraid, that they are not fit for purpose.
Now, disaster or crisis comes in many different guises. But one thing you can be certain of: that it will always follow the same pattern. A pattern that is often referred to as the ‘3 Ms’. So what do I mean by that? The 3 Ms: Mayhem, Mastermind and Manhunt.
The first ‘M’: Mayhem. Those initial few minutes, few hours, where people are trying to find out what’s going on. Where the media are trying to find eyewitness accounts. Where information is being posted on different social media platforms. Where the organisation itself is trying to get to grips of what is actually going on here.
The second ‘M’ is Mastermind. What has gone wrong? How has it gone wrong? What on earth has happened? Now we’ve all seen the so-called experts wheeled out and plonked into newsrooms at television studios to give their views and opinions of what caused this disaster.
And the third ‘M’ is Manhunt. Who was responsible? Because both the public and the media will want to hold somebody to account. Somebody has to be responsible for what has gone wrong here and how this disaster has occurred. They will effectively want a scout. But understanding how the response is likely to unfold, will help you be able to put in place effective communication plans for actually dealing with it.
Now, crisis communication response will encompass different areas, from news media to social media, engagement with partners and stakeholders, even to engagement with our own staff through effective internal communications. But one thing that I’ve noticed over the years as something that has fundamentally changed the response to a crisis or disaster, is social media. Effectively, social media has redefined the boundaries of response to a crisis and disaster.
So what are the successful steps to actually managing a crisis? Well there are a number.
Timing is everything. Time is no longer on your side. At the height of a disaster or a crisis, information both on news channels and on social media is actually changing every 30 seconds. Now, if organisations – if we – are not able to respond to that changing environment, then we’re constantly going to be on the back foot. So you should aim to get statements on to your website or other digital media platforms within 15 minutes. And those statements should be regularly updated every 15 minutes.
Own the conversation. Become the trusted voice of the emergency response. Give people confidence in your organisation. Become that authority voice, the trusted voice where people can turn to for the latest details and the latest information about what’s happening.
Designated source. Now, most organisations have a variety of digital and social media platforms that they will use to post information, and trying to update all of those is a challenge. So just use one. It might be your website. Then use your other digital and social media platforms to signpost people to that one source of information.
Call to action. This is often where an organisation falls down. It’s all very well telling people what is happening but people need to be told: what I should do. How should I behave? What do you want me to respond? How do you want me to respond? And this is often where organisations will fall over by not giving that call to action.
Don’t lash out. What do I mean by that? Well often, at the height of a disaster, there would be lots of information being exchanged, especially on different social media platforms. Remember the rule of three: three’s a conversation; more than three is an argument. Do not get into an argument, especially on social media. Put in place a release valve, where if people have got criticisms or are feeling aggrieved, they can go and post information. You can direct them to that release valve where they can go and put that information online.
Now underpinning all of this, there needs to be a clear and effective communication strategy.
That strategy is not just a job for communications. It needs to be owned by the organisation. It needs to be owned by the board.
It should actually look at different ways of working, be it from delivering news media, social media, engagement with stakeholders and opinion formers, to engagement with your own staff.
It should show where you fit into the wider response. With disaster and crisis, we often work in silos. But what we need to bear in mind is that we will be part of a number of organisations that are responding to the disaster itself. Now that could be the police, it could be the other emergency services, it could be different statutory agencies, local authorities, even central government. But your organisation needs to understand and know where it fits into that bigger response.
Your plans should be flexible, they should be reviewed on a regular basis, and they should be updated. I’m a great believer in something called ‘hot debriefs’. What is a hot debrief? A hot debrief is where you get your staff together at the end of the day and you debrief what’s happened, what went well, what needs to change or what we could do to better tomorrow. Don’t wait until the end of the process before you embark on any sort of debrief. You need to debrief and learn lessons as you go along. And that will help you deliver a much more effective and better response.
I just want to leave you with one final piece of information. An adage that I’m really passionate about: failing to plan is planning to fail. If your organisation fails to plan, then your organisation will fail to deliver.
I hope you’ve found this information useful. You can find out more information about me and about Crest Advisory, by visiting our website: crestadvisory.com
Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communications
Chris Webb is Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communications at Crest Advisory, former Head of News at Scotland Yard, and led the blue light communications on 7 July 2005.