Why Organizations need to Communicate Effectively During Crises

Many people think that corporate communication is all about glitzy press conferences in plush hotels and the hosting as well as the wining and dining of media personnel and associated stakeholders.

However, there is more to corporate communications than coming up with glossy annual reports or pithy press releases. For instance, the real mettle of the corporate communications team is tested whenever organizations face crises and the way in which the well oiled machinery of the corporate communications department or function responds to urgent need for communications often determines how well the press and the public as well as governmental agencies perceive the organization’s efforts in mitigating the crisis and the steps taken to address the crisis.

Let us take an example here. Say a prominent multinational or transnational organization has been found violating the land use or the water use agreements it has with the local and the national authorities.

Imagine how the media reacts once the scandal or the crisis breaks out and place yourself in the shoes of the organization when confronted by angry members of the public and the other stakeholders.

In this scenario, the most important aspect is the speed as well as the credibility of the response.

In other words, the organization has to first assess where it stands and then come up with a credible and authoritative response immediately so as to avoid stoking the fires of the simmering issue.

This has been the case with many organizations such as the TATA group and the American cola giants when they faced allegations of violating the land use and the water usage agreements that they had with the local and the national stakeholders.

In both these cases, the response was very credible and authoritative and pointed to the steps that the respective organization had taken to mitigate the crisis as well as the need for all stakeholders to be patient and not to resort to scaremongering and a trial by the media.

The last phrase is very crucial since, in these days of 24/7 breaking news culture, it is often the case that the media in search of the next sensational news does not bother to fact check or even reach out to the relevant stakeholders and instead airs the content as it is.

This is where the corporate communications team in organizations can come into the picture as the senior members of the team must firs ensure that they talk to the organizational leadership, ascertain what needs to be done, draft a response that accurately represents their stance on the issue and then release the statement to the media.

Of course, as we shall discuss subsequently, this is not as simple as it sounds since it entails coordinating with various stakeholders within the organization as well as outside or external agencies such as the media houses and the governmental authorities before a statement can be issued.

For instance, whenever a crisis breaks, it is often the case that the organizational leaders themselves are unprepared or caught off guard by the sheer speed with which the frenetic and the frenzied media and public response erupts. So, the task of first ascertaining the facts lies with the leadership since most of the time, the escalations of problems on the ground do not always reach the top leadership.

To take an example, when the worst industrial disaster in history, the Bhopal Gas Leak incident happened in 1984, it was the case that there was no clear communication both top down as well as bottom up leading to all sorts of confusing and contradictory responses emerging in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

In 2014, when the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared, for a few hours, almost all stakeholders were like blind men and the elephant that were guessing and speculating rather than arriving at a coherent and cohesive response to the public.

The point here is that in these days of Twitter and Social Media, it is the anonymous public who often break the story as well as add details and are on the lookout for updates. Therefore, unlike the earlier eras, the corporate communications team cannot afford to simply manage the media which in other terms means the print and visual media.

Instead, they now have to reckon with armies of social media users who often react with such alarming speed that would put traditional journalists to shame for the sheer agility and pace.

Therefore, not only does the corporate communications team during crises have to coordinate internally, but they also have to ensure that keep an eye on the social media feeds so that they can respond accordingly.

Another important aspect of crisis communication arises whenever there are fatalities or deaths and injuries to people.

For instance, whenever there is a terrorist attack, it is often the case that corporates come out with statements that assure and reassure the stakeholders about the safety or their employees as well in the unfortunate case of fatalities, quickly come up with a response detailing the steps that they are taking.

Indeed, it is during these times that the corporate communications team and the crisis communications model is tested for its humanitarian aspects as well as the organizational leadership placed in the spotlight for its commitment to the welfare of its employees.

Considering all these aspects, it is important to note that effective communications during crises often determine how the organization is perceived. Since the impressions and the perceptions in our “always on” digital culture are formed instantaneously, the imperatives of speed, accuracy and humaneness are what matters during crisis communications.

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