• Recent negative examples, such as the Facebook data scandal or the Diesel crisis, highlight the importance of risk and crisis communication.
• In order to avoid communication errors in a crisis situation, crisis intervention should be practiced using realistic scenarios.
• Learn from organizations that have weathered crises.
Communications in crisis situations require practice. Recently, we were able to observe a number of negative examples of this. For instance, it took Mark Zuckerberg many days to break the silence about the Facebook data scandal. Also, during the Diesel crisis, communications were handled poorly when car companies decided to only admit to accusations that had clear evidence of occurring, while ignoring the rest.
How to best deal with crisis situations and what role digitalization is playing in these situations will be explained by Jan Karbe, lecturer for Risk and Crisis Communication at the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences where he is one of the leading Swiss experts in the field of crisis communication.
To start, what are risk and crisis communications?
Jan Karbe: Crisis communication is the targeted, planned and continuous assessment of risks and consequences. The precursor to crisis communications is the conscious managing of risks which includes internal and external observation of various environments, the collection and evaluation of data and opinions as well as dialogue with internal and external stakeholders.
What distinguishes risk communications from crisis communications?
Jan Karbe: Risk communication addresses the potential impact on target audiences of foreseeable risks and their probability of occurrence. Crisis communication is then a consequence of risk awareness, poor risk assessment, communication in the run-up to possible crises, or communication in the event of an unforeseeable crisis. Risk communication occurs in times of “relative peace” while crisis communication in the acute phase of a crisis.
Risk and Crisis Communications Require Practice and Training
What must companies and organizations do in “quiet and normal” times to avoid errors in immediately managing and controlling a crisis when it does occur?
Jan Karbe: Practice and training is key. At the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, we practice crisis intervention with students in our Risk and Crisis Communication course using realistic scenarios. In doing so, we go as far as producing entire television programs in a studio in which participants rehearse various crisis scenarios. Today, realistic training is the standard for comprehensive crisis training. Mastering these scenarios in advance of a crisis is the only way to weather a real crisis when it happens.
What impact does digitalization have on crisis communication?
Jan Karbe: Every company, independent of its size, should implement constant Social Media Monitoring as part of its communication strategy. Especially in crisis situations, an early and active participation in dialogue is obligatory, particularly via the web. By commenting and posting in a continuous and respectful way, the company can influence the developing discussion. This way, you can limit the impacts of a shitstorm crisis situation and start the recovery phase promptly.
Want the latest news on Investor Relations, Communications, and Investor Relations delivered straight to your feed? Follow us on Twitter.
There is a school of thought that recommends issuing an immediate “mea culpa,” to admit everything right away and proactively weaken further allegations and investigating by the media. Only then should companies begin more structured, planned communications. Should companies and organizations carefully dose admissions of wrong doing or issue an instant “mea culpa?”
Jan Karbe: In a self-inflicted corporate crisis, such as the recent Diesel crisis in the automotive industry, there were companies that admitted only as much as was clearly proven at any given time. Everything else was denied. This type of approach has almost never paid off. The media will research and investigate independently. The more that comes to light from outside investigation, the more embarrassing it will be for the companies concerned. The leaps and bounds of errors and omissions sometimes lead to media hype that can completely overheat a topic. The result is a massive loss of credibility and image. The incremental admission of errors that are well known to the company is definitively a wrong-minded crisis communication tactic.
The Biggest Mistakes in Risk and Crisis Communication
Let’s continue the thread: what do you think are the biggest mistakes made in risk and crisis communications and how can one avoid them?
Jan Karbe: Quite simply: stalling tactics, hasty blame, overconfidence, and fight and flight. In broader terms, an initial halting tactic is attempted first, rather than quickly and relentlessly putting all the cards on the table. Second, blame is place outwards rather than conducting a self-critical and honest assessment of the situation. Third, overconfidence – a belief that the storm will simply pass – can be fatal to a company. In this case, one is convinced that the crisis will somehow simply pass, a tactic which goes awry in most cases. The resulting costs to a company are often much higher than any communications costs saved in ignoring the problem. Fourth, confrontation and pulling up the drawbridge. The combination of fight and flight puts a spotlight on your problem for opponents to capitalize on, the last thing you need in a crisis.
Any final advice to our readers?
Jan Karbe: Learn from organizations that have weathered crises. Some have gone under as a result of their approach to a crisis, while others came out stronger. Prepare for crises as early as possible, and always start your approach from a worst-case scenario. Form a dedicated staff to handle these situation, educate them, and give the team sufficient time to train in handling of crises under realistic conditions. Situations of handling crisis communications can be practiced.