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Common challenges of crisis communications

Photo of David Gilbert, VP of Americas

David Gilbert

VP Americas

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Oct 1, 2018
6 min read
Middle aged white man in a worksite uniform

Creating a crisis management plan can be among the hardest tasks a crisis communications team has to perform. Not only because the risks are so high – potentially including everything from reputation damage to loss of human life – but because it’s impossible to create a detailed communication strategy before knowing exactly what you’re planning for. Faced with these challenges, many good public relations teams have preferred to go ostrich, burying their heads in the sand until an event has forced them out. That means going silent within internal communications as well as externally, including press releases and social media. But if we’ve learned anything from BP, Virginia Tech, Lance Armstrong, and – most recently – Dreamworld, it’s that leaving crisis communication planning until the last minute is probably the worst plan of all. As with anything, the first step towards improvement is acknowledging what it is you’re facing. By recognizing the five most common challenges of crisis communications, you can then start to overcome them, one by one.

1. Too Much Information

Often, when an emergency strikes (like a natural disaster for example), the floodgates of communication swing open. It is common for high-level management (or whoever the crisis manager is within your organization) to become overwhelmed with the amount of information flying at them from all angles. And it’s not just the quantity of information that can be problematic. It’s also the quality. Before the proverbial dust clears, it’s easy for emergencies to become even more muddled. It’s also just as easy to miss the thread of truth that (hopefully) runs through any messaging. To mitigate the chances of information wipe-out, the best practice is to think in advance about how you’ll get your information out to team members and external audiences, as well as who you’ll be getting it from. With the right technology in place, you can establish a centralized dashboard where, when a crisis occurs, all of your relevant stakeholders can report on and monitor the situation in real-time. And once you’ve got the right people all in one place, it becomes easier to find and follow that golden thread of truth - aka, an effective communication plan.

2. Too Little Information

It’s the Catch-22 of crises: when you don’t have too much information, you have too little. Even in day-to-day business communications, reliance on just one channel can lead to trouble. But in crisis scenarios, the importance of real-time visibility becomes a hurdle you don’t want to stumble over. We live in a connected world, and there’s no longer any excuse for relying exclusively on email to get information out. Particularly when the information you’re distributing carries such high stakes for your business, you need to direct it through multiple communication channels, thinking about which ones are most likely to be seen first. In the vast majority of cases, SMS will win the race. For an instant, multi-channel distribution, modern communications software is your hero on a white horse. If you’ve integrated the right software into your communications strategy in advance, you can send out your message in bulk, through multiple channels, at the literal click of a button.

3. No Contact Data

But what use is instant, multi-channel messaging if you don’t have anyone to send it to? Contact information is one of the easiest things to plan before a crisis because all of the important stakeholders are known well in advance of an emergency situation. For most companies, the main challenge has to do with properly storing their details. The days of paper address books are over. These days, most organizations will have their contacts stored digitally. But many will not have them stored all in one place – or in the right place, for that matter. And the fact that not all stakeholders will be relevant to all crisis situations only compounds the challenge. By ensuring that your contact list is easily accessible and contactable in advance of an emergency, you save yourself a lot of time wasted in the back-and-forth. In terms of best practices, storing contacts in a system that allows you to group dynamically and according to a category, you can segment your contact list so that the right people can be contacted from a single place in seconds, rather than you having to filter through your entire list manually. When crises come down to seconds, a quick response can make all the difference.

4. Unpredictable Situations

By its very nature, a crisis is hard to plan for. You don’t know when they’re coming, or what they’re going to be, but you know they’re always there, looming like a dark cloud in your potential future. This leads to the second Catch-22 of crisis planning: it’s difficult to plan a message without knowing in advance all the additional information you need, like what the next crisis might be. But when the crisis comes, it’s just as difficult to write considered communications in an atmosphere of high pressure and confusion. So, then, what’s a company to do? Shut its eyes and hope the problem goes away? Unfortunately, that plan is unlikely to work out. But while you can’t put on your psychic lenses and draft a comprehensive report for the next incident, you can spend some time working out what kinds of crisis your company is likely to face, based on industry and your company’s history. Once these categories of potential crisis have been identified (for an airline, for instance, these would include flight delays and crashes) you can start to draft generic holding messages for each. Although these templates won’t contain the specifics of the event which has not yet occurred, they will provide frameworks into which you can add specifics when you know them, thereby limiting the opportunity for errors. And remember, if a crisis has occurred, proper documentation will help you learn from the previous recovery process to plan for the next one.

5. No Visibility

It’s one thing to have a message prepared, and quite another to know what’s happened to it after you’ve hit send. Unfortunately, it’s not enough in crisis communications to have an up-to-date contact list and message templates sitting ready for deployment. Fast action depends on the right people opening the message in time, and on you being aware that they’ve opened it. And if they haven’t, it’s no good sitting around blindly awaiting a response. With the right communications technology set up in advance of a crisis, you’ll be able to monitor who has received your message and who has not with real-time tracking software. And if key internal and external stakeholders haven't received a message or have opened it but not responded, you’ll be able to escalate your actions immediately, without wasting any time. When crisis strikes, time becomes your most precious resource. And by utilizing the myriad of communication tools at your disposal, you can ensure it’s on your side when the unexpected occurs.

We'll help you become crisis communication experts

The Whispir platform was built with best practices in mind, ensuring that you can cover as many bases as possible when it comes to your emergency notifications and mitigation tactics. If you find that your crisis management team is lacking the tools they need to properly address emergencies, we can help. Our platform can help you:

  • Alert stakeholders quickly with automated workflows that are built on pre-established templates with emergency triggers

  • Send out post-crisis communication (including surveys) to keep everyone informed and up-to-date

  • Disseminate relevant information in real-time so that all teams remain on the same page during crises: emergency crews, government officials, investors, and more

  • Give you a solid starting point for establishing long-term crisis communication strategies that are unique to your team

You can also read up on some of our case studies to learn how we've helped create crisis management strategies for organizations large and small.

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