Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Strategies for Crisis Communication

Trust and credibility are critically important when we are in a crisis. If you want people to trust you, they have to believe you are capable of managing the crisis and that takes effective communication.

The first memories I have of my nephew are gazing at him through a window at the nursery in the hospital. He was the first child of my brother, first grandchild of my parents, and first nephew of mine. He was welcomed, adored and loved.

I was reminded of that this week when I found out he was isolated at a camp North of Ft. McMurray, Alberta. The city was on fire and he was waiting to be evacuated. Facebook was our connection to him. "Are you safe?" was a question I asked him as I watched videos of ashes and burning embers rained down on cars and people. He assured all of us he was safe.

"What about your company? Aren't they arranging transportation? What have they told you?" He wrote back, "Very disappointed with my company. No information on what we're supposed to do. No information on anything! So I guess we sit here and wait."

What!!?? These were people who were concerned for their lives and they weren't getting any information.

I've talked about this at conferences. The time to make a communication plan is not during or after a crisis. It should be done, evaluated and ready to dust off whenever it is needed. I'm sure no one at my nephew's company was expecting a catastrophic fire but they should have had a plan if they had to do an emergency evacuation. How much do you think the company was trusted during the crisis?

Dr. Peter M. Sandman has 6 strategies that must be kept in mind during Crisis Communication. All of this makes perfect sense and will increase trust.
  1. Don't over-reassure. Over-reassurance pushes ambivalent audiences toward the alarmed side of the seesaw; it diminishes credibility and leaves them alone with their fears. If you have to get it wrong, better to err on the alarming side.
  2. Acknowledge uncertainty. Sounding more certain than you are rings false, sets you up to turn out wrong, and provokes debate with those who disagree. Better to say what you know, what you don't know, and what you are doing to learn more. Model the ability to bear uncertainty and take action anyway.
  3. Treat emotions as legitimate. In a crisis, people are right to be fearful and miserable. Both emotions are at risk of flipping into denial, or escalating into terror or depression, or receding into apathy. To help us bear our feelings, respect our feelings.
  4. Establish your own humanity. Express your own feelings; if you seem fearless, you can't help but model how others should master fear. Express your wishes: "I wish we could give you a more definite answer." Tell a few stories about your past, your family, your reactions to the crisis.
  5. Offer people things to do. Self-protective action helps mitigate fear; victim-aid action helps mitigate misery. All action helps us bear our emotions and thus helps prevent denial. Where possible, offer a choice of actions, bracketing your recommendations with less and more extreme options.
  6. Stop worrying about panic. Panic is rare. Efforts to avoid panic – for example, by withholding bad news and making over-reassuring statements – tend to backfire. People sometimes disobey in a crisis, but that's not panic. Worry about denial, worry about apathy; don't worry about panic.

These 6 strategies should be part of every crisis communication. Are they part of yours?

More trust means more success at work and in our personal relationships. If it's your time to tackle the difficult issue of trust in your organization, I'm here to help. Get in touch.

photo credit PremierofAlberta / Flickr

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