Communications in Crisis versus Crisis Communications – Not the Same Thing.
We’re all in the midst of crisis. In fact, we’re all neck-deep in multiple crises. Despite being beset on all sides by some very serious and news cycle-consuming events, the world keeps turning. Which means, no matter what your line of business, the Word, so to speak, needs to continue to get out. So how best to accomplish this, and indeed what approach to take, in the midst of historic upheaval?First let’s be clear, there is an important difference between crisis communications and communicating in a crisis. By exploring what aspects are similar as well as what the major points of departure are, I hope to provide some guidelines for creating impactful and relevant messages during these unprecedented times.
Classic Crisis Communications
In a classic crisis communications scenario, an organization or company is responding to a localized event focused on that particular company. For example, your CEO has been arrested for riding nude down Main Street on a unicycle, or one of your oil wells has exploded. Whatever the crisis may be, it’s generally self-imposed or at the very least limited to a specific organization.
The guidelines here are clear: manage the narrative, provide open, honest, and regular communications and updates, don’t obfuscate, don’t point fingers, and don’t guess – if you don’t know the answer as yet, say so.
In this type of scenario, the organization or company needs to take charge and take responsibility. The media along with stakeholders (employees, customers, shareholders, etc.) want to know the classic five Ws and H. What happened, Who’s affected/Who’s responsible, When did it happen/When will it be over, Where did it happen, and Why/How did it happen?
Perhaps most importantly, in order to move past the crisis in question, an organization must acknowledge responsibility. This usually includes some form of mea culpa or at the very least an apology seen as genuine.
Communications Within Crisis
The situation each and every organization or company now find themselves in is not crisis communications but cannot be ignored. Communicating poorly (or not at all) during the current crises can turn the situation into a scenario that requires actual crisis communications, but that can be avoided by following a few simple precepts.
Stakeholders want to know what you, as an organization, are doing specifically to address how the crisis will affect them. It’s a much more personal and pervasive proposition than classic crisis comms. Stakeholder concerns might include personal safety, the effect the crisis is having on their investment in the organization, how your organization is managing the workforce, and more. Specifically, what business policies, practices or procedures are changing due to the crisis and how does that affect stakeholder interactions with the organization. Communications need to be much more focused on impacted parties.
From one perspective, crisis communications is about the company while communications within a crisis is about stakeholders. Because the crisis is imposed from external forces upon a company, the public is often privy to information at the same time as the organization.
"Stakeholders aren’t looking to organizations for information about the crisis (unlike in crisis communications), but rather how organizations are reacting to the crisis as it relates to the stakeholder".
Some organizations are doing a better job at this than others. Admittedly, the laggards have caught on and caught up to companies which were setting the best examples of how and what to communicate. Most supermarkets and financial institutions are prime examples of organizations doing this well. They provide information relevant to their crisis response vis-à-vis their customers and employees often, clearly, and at every possible stakeholder touchpoint.
Some commonalities all effective communication. has despite the circumstances, are regularity, reliability, and relevance. Communicating on a regular basis, regular whether the crisis is of your own making or not, accomplishes two goals. It helps establish trust, and it provides a dependable outlet from which stakeholders can garner the information you want them to have, framed in the way you want. It’s also important to ensure the information you provide is as reliable as possible. This also helps establish trust and credibility, providing a down payment on buying you the benefit of the doubt in the future when you may need it. Lastly, make sure the information provided is relevant to the target audience. Know your audience, understand the particular situation you are in, focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and tailor the message accordingly.
I’ve summarized some of these key points of differentiation in the table below.
Managing messaging during a crisis, whether it’s public relations, advertising, general marketing, or stakeholder communications, is important but very different than crisis communications. I hope this hasn’t seem like splitting hairs, but it’s easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of emotions and events. A major product defect resulting in injuries is a crisis to be managed. Letting your customers, employees and other stakeholders know how you as an organization are responding to the immediate and wide-ranging as it relates to them is effectively communicating within a crisis.
Let me know what you think. I’m always interested in learning from readers.