A crisis refers to any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, damage reputation or negatively impact share value. Crisis communication can play a significant role by transforming the unexpected into the anticipated and responding accordingly.
A crisis is defined as a significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly. In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, and an industry. A crisis can create three related threats: (1) public safety, (2) financial loss, and (3) reputation loss.
As Dilenschneider (2000) notes in The Corporate Communications Bible, all crises threaten to tarnish an organization’s reputation. A crisis reflects poorly on an organization and will damage a reputation to some degree. Clearly these three threats are interrelated. Injuries or deaths will result in financial and reputation loss while reputations have a financial impact on organizations.
Lerbinger (1997) categorized seven types of crises: Natural crises: Typically natural disasters considered as’ acts of God,’ are such environmental phenomena as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, storms, and droughts that threaten life, property, and the environment itself.
Technological crises: Are caused by human application of science and technology. Technological accidents inevitably occur when technology becomes complex and coupled and something goes wrong in the system as a whole (Technological breakdowns). Some technological crises occur when human error causes disruptions.
Confrontation crises: Occur when discontented individuals and/or groups fight businesses, government, and various interest groups to win acceptance of their demands and expectations. The common type of confrontation crises is boycotts, and other types are picketing, sit-ins, ultimatums to those in authority, blockade or occupation of buildings, and resisting or disobeying police.
Crises of malevolence: An organization faces a crisis of malevolence when opponents or miscreant individuals use criminal means or other extreme tactics for the purpose of expressing hostility or anger toward, or seeking gain from, a company, country, or economic system, perhaps with the aim of destabilizing or destroying it. Sample crises include product tampering, kidnapping, malicious rumors, terrorism, and espionage.
Crises of organizational misdeeds: Crises occur when management takes actions it knows will harm or place stakeholders at risk for harm without adequate precautions. Lerbinger (1997) specifies three different types of crises of organizational misdeeds:
Crises of skewed management values: Are caused when managers favour short-term economic gain and neglect broader social values and stakeholders other than investors.
This state of lopsided values is rooted in the classical business creed that focuses on the interests of stockholders and tends to view the interests of its other stakeholders such as customers, employees, and the community.
Crises of deception: Occur when management conceals or misrepresents information about itself and its products in its dealing with consumers and others.
Crises of management misconduct: Some crises are caused not only by skewed values and deception but deliberate immorality and illegality.
Workplace violence: Crises occur when an employee or former employee commits violence against other employees on organizational grounds.
Rumors: False information about an organization or its products creates crises hurting the organization’s reputation. Sample is linking the organization to radical groups or stories that their products are contaminated.
Crisis communication is a specialist area of PR. In the face of a crisis situation, PR skills and techniques are particularly important. Often, they are severely tested. Unless careful PR planning is done and quick and effective responses are made, impacts of a crisis on an organization or an individual can be drastic and fatal.
Crisis communication refers to the flow of information during a crisis among an organization, its employees, the media, the government, law enforcement and the general public [American Library Association].
The work of crisis communication is two-fold: preparation and response. To prepare for a crisis, an organization must create a detailed crisis communication plan with a crisis communication team assigned to execute the plan. With a plan in place, an organization is more likely to respond to a crisis quickly, take immediate steps to control the message and successfully regain the public’s trust.
In a crisis situation, the PR person should be prepared at all times and make sure the following are observed and undertaken: Preparation: The organization should maintain contact with its host community at all times. These will include the opinion leaders and the regulatory authorities.
Crisis Room: A special team or think-tank should be in the organization. Apart from the Chief
Executive who should lead the team in deliberating and seeking the way out, the team should include
the public relations man, legal adviser, and the head of operation or officer-in-charge of the issue at hand. It is recommended that the crisis room must be an isolated environment with minimal interference and distraction.
Resources: When crisis erupts, there is a tendency to receive large crowds, who may be the organization’s target audience, trooping in or trying to get in contact with the organization by all means. The organization should provide telephone numbers, mailbox, special e-mail address and relevant items that may be required to douse the tension. Also, some staff should be designated to receive and respond politely to all enquiries as they come in.
Message: The spokesperson, if necessary the Chief Executive, may address the public through appropriate media. It may be in form of press-releases, paid adverts or through press conferences. The message should be designed in such a way that it gives assurance, tenders an apology where necessary and seeks sympathy and goodwill while expressing, in an honest and polite manner, the possible reason for the development. This is the main stage of all crises management, that is informing the public truthfully and honestly on the situation to avoid rumor mongering and gossips that may compound the already critical situation.
Target: As in any PR stages, the target audience of the organization must be known. But in crisis situation, not only are the relevant audience but large targets considered too for their understanding. Therefore, the targets include stakeholders, local community, pressure groups, the government and the media.At all crises situations, it is the responsibility of the PR Unit to make sure that its communication technique has a timely and precise quality, so as to build goodwill amongst its general public, showing care and concern. While anticipating action from pressure groups, whose approach may be highly demanding, a crisis management team should be raised and trained on-the-spot. The more reliable hands are involved, the better the representation to reach wider targets.
Effective crisis communication strategies will typically consider achieving most, if not all, of the following
Maintain connectivity, Be readily accessible to the news media, Show empathy for the people involved, Allow distributed access, Streamline communication processes, Maintain information security, Ensure uninterrupted audit trails, Deliver high volume communications, Support multi-channel communications and finally remove dependencies on paper based processes.