By Goke Ilesanmi
Corporate organisations are vulnerable to crises. In short, it is inevitable to be in business without experiencing situations involving lawsuits, sudden changes in company ownership or management, and other volatile situations on which stakeholders often focus. But the good news is that organisations can better cope with crises if they have established sound and long-term relationship with stakeholders, that is, the people and organisations that are at risk from the decisions and actions of such organisations.
No organisation has enough resources to engage in the ideal two-way symmetric dialogue with every stakeholder, so management must allocate resources in the order of priority. Stakeholder relationship management should be a priority task of management. Stakeholders can be assessed and prioritised according to organisational impact.
It is natural that a crisis will have effects on the future financial performance of a company, so crisis communication plans should make full allowance for releasing information to interested parties simultaneously. As regards public liability companies in times of crises, basically such companies are obliged to follow the rules of their local stock exchange in releasing information into the public arena.
Kim Harrison, a renowned authority on public relations, says all information relating to the financial performance of such a company has to be announced simultaneously to shareholders through the exchange, analysts, the media and other stakeholders.
The stakeholders to a crisis will immediately form their perception about the content of the organisation’s messages in various ways. The first one is the communication speed. First impression is the lasting impression. The first message received on a subject sets the stage for comparison of all future messages on that subject.
The speed with which the first communication is issued can be an indicator to stakeholders and the public as to how prepared the organisation is to respond to the crisis. If stakeholders are not aware of the organisation’s response to the event, then as far as they are concerned, the organisation is not responding. The stakeholders will lose confidence and the organisation will always be attempting to catch up the perception.
Another way through which stakeholders to a crisis form their perception about the content of an organisation’s message is through the facts of a message. The stakeholders will be listening for the facts, so the organisation should get the facts right, repeat them consistently and ensure all credible sources share the same facts. Preparation can help to maximise the amount of information that can be assembled and disseminated.
Trust is another way through which stakeholders to a crisis form their perception. As with risk communication, it is vital to establish trust and credibility with your key audiences. There are four basic elements to establishing trust and credibility through crisis communication. People will realise if these elements are faked. All written and verbal messages during a crisis should contain the following elements: Empathy, competence, honesty and dedication.
Empathy. Empathy should be expressed in the first 30 seconds. Being perceived as empathetic and caring provides greater opportunity for the message to be accepted.
Competence. Obviously education, position title and organisational roles are quick ways to indicate expertise. Previous experience and demonstrated abilities in the current situation enhance the perception of competence.
Honesty. Convey all the relevant information. If the spokesperson is prevented from passing on certain information then it helps to explain why, e.g. “We don’t have that information at this stage”, etc.
Communication in a crisis should follow the principles of risk communication. Organisations need to be open, accessible and willing to respond as much as possible to those seeking information. Another thing is not to over-reassure. The objective is not to soothe, but to express accurate, calm concern. In fact, it is better to over-estimate the problem and then be able to say that the situation is better than first thought.
Acknowledge uncertainty. Tell only what you know. Show your distress and acknowledge your audience’s distress thus: “It must be frustrating to hear that we don’t have the answer to that question right now.…” Organisations in crisis should also emphasise that a process is in place to learn more. Describe that process in simple terms.
Organisations in crisis should be regretful, not defensive. Say, “We are sorry….” when acknowledging problems or failures. Express wishes. Say, “I wish our answers were more definitive.” Prepare messages in advance. A crisis jams up every action into an urgent time frame. There is no enough time to perform actions properly. Therefore it makes sense to do as much preparation in advance as possible.
Harrison educates that one of the crucial communication tasks is the preparation of holding statements in the initial stages while waiting for more definitive information to be available. This task can be helped immeasurably by preparing a sizeable proportion of such statements ahead of time from a standard format. Several versions of a statement can be prepared for adaptation as required. It is surprising how much of a statement can be written, leaving only a few spaces that need to be filled in. The statements must not contain any inaccuracies or speculation.
The statements should just state the known facts and incorporate key messages such as: “We are sorry the event happened, we are extremely concerned, and we are doing everything possible to contain the effects of the crisis”; “Not all the relevant details are available at this time. But investigation is underway. A spokesperson will be available to comment and provide an update later.”
This effort shows willingness to provide accurate information openly and regularly. The organisation here makes no comment on the question of legal responsibility for the incident. That is best left to the proper investigation by the authorities.
To be continued
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GOKE ILESANMI (FIIM, FIMC, CMC), CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker, Career Mgt Coach and Certified Mgt Consultant. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
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