The opportunity in a crisis
No one wishes for a crisis, but that doesn’t mean something good can’t come of it.
Sun-Tzu famously said, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” In an organisational sense, the opportunity is to build trust and engagement with your audience by handling your crisis confidently and with authority. Your stakeholders need to know that you are in control of the response.
A lot of what we’ve learned about crisis communications in early 2023 comes from public sector responses to natural disasters, including the most recent rain events. There are lessons in these responses that can easily be applied to other sectors and scenarios.
Here are five principles for communications and engagement teams to reflect on as we take stock of the crises that have shaped this year so far.
A crisis by its nature can catch people off guard and that can leave people unprepared – both members of the public and the people dealing with it. Information about what’s happening needs to keep up with an unfolding situation.
The response to the Auckland Anniversary weekend floods was noted for not communicating well enough or soon enough. Critically, that doesn’t mean people weren’t doing their jobs – it’s that systems weren’t in place to enable timely communication.
In these times, the communication process needs to be as efficient as possible. Make sure your crisis team can be stood up quickly and have a streamlined crisis sign-off process that people know and understand how and when to execute. Involve your executive in establishing the process so you know their comfort level with various scenarios and approaches.
Communicating quickly is a priority in a crisis, and your process should reflect that.
It’s vital you understand the needs of your key stakeholders so that when a crisis hits you know the level of support and information they want. What are the biggest questions they want answers to? How often should you update them?
Those questions will change as the crisis unfolds too. Things that weren’t relevant on day one can become critical on day three, and a complete comms approach takes into account the evolving needs of stakeholders. Pre-empting those needs and understanding how you might answer those questions is at the core of any good strategy.
Communicating regularly also showcases your continued control over a situation, the response and all the elements of it.
Consistency is important, but only when what you’re saying matters. If you’re communicating things that aren’t important to your audience, key messages get lost, and you undermine yourself.
Consider what your stakeholders need to know, and where your organisation is placed in the overall response. You may be better off sharing messages from other, more frontline organisations, rather than muddying the waters with well-intentioned messaging that confuses rather than builds understanding.
Amplifying information from others shows that you’re working with the big players, you’re coordinated, you’re on top of things outside of your own area, and that you understand what stakeholders want.
Getting accurate information while things are unfolding is often not straightforward.
It helps to plan ahead for what the key issues are likely to be in different crises and how you’ll get the best information about them. Include the people you’ll rely on in the planning stage, so they know their role and the importance of it.
Consider what other authorities you can lean on. In a public sector/natural disaster context, that can be Civil Defence or Fire and Emergency NZ. Having a good relationship with these organisations helps ensure you have access to accurate information fast.
Communicating accurately also means having a home for all your messaging that becomes the single source of truth. It’ll often be your Facebook account or an internet page. This adds to your authority by being the single source of truth and place people go to answer their questions.
Finally, a crisis isn’t the time for fancy graphics or videos. Regardless of who your stakeholders are, people want fast, clear, straightforward, easy-to-read information.
Ultimately, how well you respond to a crisis isn’t determined by the actions of your people as it’s unfolding. It’s determined by how prepared you are for it; how well you know your stakeholders and their needs, and how good your relationships and systems are to communicate the key things people need to know.
Your stakeholders don’t (usually) blame you for the crisis happening, but they will judge you on how you handle it. Sticking to the five principles of timely, consistent, necessary, accurate and simple is a way to demonstrate you are equipped to deal with a crisis, which builds trust for how you operate during business-as-usual.
Thank you to the participants at SenateSHJ’s public sector meet up in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland who inspired this article.