Q&A about Crisis Communications

Are stakeholders assets or liabilities in a crisis? In an interview about crisis communications with Professor W. Timothy Coombs, of the University of Florida, answers are provided to some of the key questions about crisis communications.



Summary of the interview:

1. How would you define a crisis? In what ways is crisis management a critical organizational function?

A crisis is potentially disruptive to an organisation or being very damaging to an organisation in terms of its operation. Also there is some type of violation of expectation of the stakeholders. It needs to be integrated into what the organisation does.

2. What are the key aspects of an effective crisis communication programme? How important is the pre-crisis phase?

Three points:

– Scanning for risks and possible crisis as they emerge.

– Train the crisis team

– Develop holding statements, templates of messages made for different types of crisis you might have, that you can fill in the blanks and release early, collect more information and develop your messages further to give more information later.

Managing a crisis is relatively easy if you’ve done your pre-crisis well.

3. Internal versus external – where does the priority lay?

Both internal and external are equally important. Not only managing external stakeholders is important, but also your employees. They can be important delivering your message in a trusted way.

4. How can companies effectively manage their crisis communications to handle stakeholders’ perception?

The key is to communicate regularly with your stakeholders. Inform them early on about the crisis, so that they know how to respond when they get questions about the crisis and can give informed answers. The foundation is your previous communication. They know you, trust and work with you so that in case of a crisis they are not surprised and are wiling to help you out.

5. How does the role of stakeholders change depending on the type of crisis?

There are different types of crisis: In a crisis with potential physical threat to stakeholders in case of for instance a recall product, a contamination to the food, you put the priority on your customers. The type of crisis determines which stakeholder has a priority. In case of reputational crisis, it’s less about the stakeholders and more about the organisation.

6. How does the cultural setting affect the stakeholders’ reactions in a crisis, especially in multinational companies?

Different cultures perceive differently whether there is a crisis and also what they expect in terms of response. In some cultures your first response would be an apology, in others not. How you prioritise your stakeholders can change from culture to culture too, for instance, high power distance and low power distance countries are managed differently.

7. How can the social media and crisis communication efforts work best?

Social media teams need to work very closely with the crisis team. Social media has a monitoring function before and during a crisis and during a crisis messages will need to be coordinated. Social media can give you a rough indicator how people are reacting to your messaging. It can give you insight if you might need to change your messaging strategy.

8. Should employees be involved in crisis communications?

Employees should not be talking to the news media. A designated and media trained spokesperson will have this role. If friends and family ask questions however, employees should have been informed what to say. They should receive accurate information about the crisis, which they are allowed to use. They are a trusted and viable channel.

9. What is your advice for corporate communications professionals with regards to crisis communications?

Do everything you can so that crisis communication is integrated into the organisation. Corporate Communications plays an important role on the crisis management team because the function brings a unique perspective to the team.