Friday, July 29, 2011

Crisis Communication Plan: The 5 Essential Elements

The proliferation of Social Media has changed how effective Crisis Communication is to be done. The presence of low cost Internet access and Internet ready devices have broken the monopolistic hold of professionally run news organisations. In today's information environment, practically anybody can create and disseminate “news” contents. These unregulated “Citizen Journalists” can now galvanise populace support as widely and as effectively as any big budget news organisations. Furthermore, the Internet's ability to provide instantaneous news on a 24/7 basis, consolidated and indexed (via intelligent search engines), has made it the primary source of news. Essentially, the convergence of media technology has fundamentally altered the way individuals receive news and gather information and has created two new dimensions to Crisis Communication – User Generated Contents and Rallying Tools.

Implications for Crisis Communications

As a direct result of these technological advances, the nature of Crisis Communication has fundamentally changed. In the new information environment, Crisis Communication operates in an environment in which information is:

a. Near Instantaneous Media Cycle. As acknowledged by Reuter's Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, “every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public and not by traditional journalists.” The omnipresence of “journalists,” coupled with technology that enable professional journalists to report the news as it develops, has compressed the media cycle and crisis response times. This compression was demonstrated in January 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River. In that incident, emails, tweets, photos and videos of the incident began filtering through cyberspace 15 minutes before the main-stream media even reported it. In fact, the first recorded tweet occurred 4 minutes after the incident.

b. Perfect Information Environment. The ability of Internet search engines to trawl the world wide web for information, and to present it collated and indexed, effectively provides stakeholders with perfect information about an incident. This means that nothing is likely to remain hidden forever and that once the spot-light is turned-on, everything related (both past and present) will be revealed and scrutinised. This “know-all” nature of the Internet environment is demonstrated in our daily news reports where the subject's childhood associations, past comments on websites or blogs can be reported. In the November 2009 Fort Hood Massacre, the New York Times tracked a posting on the website Scribd allegedly published by the shooter supporting suicide bombings by Muslim extremists.

c. Multiple Media Platforms. A 2008 study commissioned by The Associated Press on the News Consumption Behaviour of Young Adults revealed that younger consumers are not only less reliant on newspapers for their news, but that they also consume news across a multitude of platforms and sources. Online videos, blogs, online social networks, mobile devices, RSS, word of mouth, web portals and search engines have become their go to sources. As many of these New Media sources are unregulated, the risk of distortion to the facts is extremely high. Nik Gowing, in his July 2002 article for the Humanitarian Practise Network, describes how facts about an Israeli offensive into the West Bank in the Spring of 2002 to neutralise suicide bombers targeting Israel was distorted by questionable emails, photos, videos and blogs to portray an Israeli massacre of Palestinians. While eventually unsubstantiated, the negative world opinion cost the Israeli Defence Force heavily and forced their early withdrawal denying them the ability to act in self-defence.

In short, in the new information environment, Crisis Communication is beyond the control of any individual or organisation. Crisis Communication Planners must accept that nothing can be hidden forever and that a Crisis Communication Plan must be open, fast, accurate, broadly communicated through multiple platforms and comprising a cyberspace component.

Characteristics of Effective Crisis Communications - The 5 Essential Elements

To meet the challenges of operating in the new information environment of a near instantaneous media cycle, one in which perfect information is available, and one in which stakeholders get their news from multiple platforms, effective Crisis Communication Plans must be (a) open; (b) timely; (c) truthful; (d) broadly communicated; and (e) present in the Internet.

a. Open. As nothing in the new information environment can be hidden indefinitely, Crisis Communication Planners can no longer try to manage an incident by preventing it from being made public. It must be assumed that all news worthy incidences will be reported and that the role of the Crisis Communication Planner is to “frame” the incident so that the company will be seen as positively as possible. Adopting an open reporting approach has two main advantages. Firstly, open reporting will establish the company's credibility with stakeholders with regards to their desire to resolve the crisis. This credibility will in turn position any subsequent actions taken positively. Secondly, being proactive in releasing information about the incident will prevent distortion of the facts. This will allow the company to “frame” the incident in its favour as well as prevent the crisis from spiralling out of control.

b. Timely. Given the speed with which the New Media operates, Crisis Communication Planners can no longer “beat” the media cycle. Fortunately, stakeholders accept that it takes time for a company to gather the facts of an incident and are willing to wait a reasonable time to hear from the company. While there is no hard and fast rule as to what constitutes a reasonable time, an initial statement acknowledging the incident within the 1st hour and a follow-up press conference within 4 hours has so far proven to be the norm. The timely acknowledgement of an incident will also enable the company to gain the information initiative. In addition, as there is usually conflicting information during the early stages of a crisis that causes confusion, the timely release of information will fill this vacuum and reduce distortion of facts. Putting a “face” to the company also allows the company to establish itself as the primary source of credible information on the crisis.

c. 100% Truthful. In the perfect information environment, false or deliberately misleading statements will be found out. It is not uncommon for stakeholders to search for past incidences to discredit the company's claims or for other similarly affected parties to come forward. Once a pattern of deceit is established, this will imply a cover-up on the part of the company giving further traction to the crisis. Crisis Communication Planners must therefore only allow complete truths to be disclosed. This is because in a crisis, the credibility of the company's spokesperson is central to an effective Crisis Communication plan. The Crisis Communication planner must therefore protect the spokesperson's credibility. To fulfil this role, the Crisis Communication Planner has to think like a journalists and when facts are doubtful, seek proof from their internal stakeholders before releasing the information.

d. Broadly Communicated. The presence of numerous news platforms has complicated Crisis Communication as Crisis Communication Planners can no longer rely on the traditional press conference to communicate the company's message to all affected stakeholders. Online videos, blogs, online social networks, RSS, web portals and search engines are alternate news platforms that also need to carry the message. As such, the development and release of Social Media compatible information, customised to the different technical requirements of each platform, is integral to a holistic Crisis Communication plan. Given the large number and types of platforms, requiring specialised skills, the Crisis Communication Team alone is unlikely to be able to cope and will need to be augmented with a team from the IT department.

e. Internet Presence. As mentioned earlier, the perfect information environment allows powerful search engines to instantaneously collate and index all related information on the incident for users. Hence all news reports, both positive and negative, will be seen by the stakeholders. To maintain a positive "spin" to the crisis, Crisis Communication Planners must ensure that the number of positive reports exceed the negatives. This is done via the proactive and deliberate publishing of information on the Internet. Additionally, as the Internet “archive” practically everything indefinitely, the company's Crisis Communication plan does not end with the closure of the crisis. The company's side of the story must remain posted so that the company continues to tell its side of the story indefinitely.

Conclusion

Internet technology has fundamentally changed the nature of Crisis Communication. Companies and PR Professionals operating in this new information environment must understand the technological implications and adjust their approach accordingly. Only then, can the PR Professional adequately serve his or her client.

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