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Volume 27, Issue 3

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September 2, 2009

Crisis Communication

Written by  Robert C. Chandler, Ph.D. Director, Nicholson School of Communication University of Central Florida
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Communication failures have historically plagued organizations in their ability to respond to and minimize the human, operational, and financial impact of a crisis. When disaster strikes and every second counts, organizations need to focus on the mission-critical tasks of ensuring the safety of their people and continuing operations. One of the backbones to accomplishing these tasks are to ensure that you have sustained on-going communication with key personnel, constituents, and partners with high levels of mutual understanding, comprehension, and coordinated behaviors. The need for such high performance communication is often at its peaks during the most challenging and confusing moments of a crisis, making sustainable crisis communication of the most important priorities.

Beyond sustaining effective communication within your chain of command and among all of your personnel who are responding (and of course interagency communication) one of the most discussed and potentially life and death urgent is to quickly and rapidly “get the word” out to a wide range targeted audiences. This communication may constitute warnings, notifications, alerts, and emergency messages.

During a crisis, it is imperative that misunderstandings from verbal and nonverbal communication are minimized. The burden is on the initiator to verify that the message is understood correctly and the receiver to clarify with questions. Clearness and conciseness are ways of providing an understandable message. Poor word choice can hinder the receiver from understanding the message correctly. Too much or too little information packaged in a message, or a message that is poorly constructed or full of technical jargon all lead to communication failures.

If an emergency includes the loss of electricity and support utilities, many of the otherwise “dependable” communication technologies may be down. There are a variety of technologies to facilitate communication in a crisis, including phone (land line, mobile and satellite), fax, internet/web-based, e-mail, radio, PDA and pager – using voice and text communications (such as e-mail, SMS and Instant Messenger). Consider which alternatives would be best in every circumstance and what your back-up technologies would be for each primary channel.

Key questions to ask when building a crisis communication plan include:

  • Whom do you need to communicate with in each crisis scenario?
  • What should you say in a notification, alert, or warning message during a crisis?
  • Do you have the capability to communicate the information under crisis conditions?
  • Are you confident that the message will be delivered, and can you confirm receipt?
  • What equipment and costs are required to have a complete “two-way” communication during the crisis?
  • Does use of alternative communication technology require knowledge, skills, or abilities that personnel who are available during crises possess?
  • Does the alternative technology have the capability to communicate (voice, data, etc.) the information you need communicated under crisis conditions (alternative power, range, frequency, typical interference, etc.)?
  • Do all personnel have the ability to operation these technologies with no privacy of communication during crises?


Although communication technology issues are a major concern during many types of disaster and crises; the key to successful communication is often less dependent on the technology (whether ubiquitous or emerging alternative) but rather hinges on the processes, procedures, and people involved with the communication. The more common issues involve aspects of duties, responsibilities, interpretation, and reporting check-lists. No communication planning can be considered complete until questions about the processes, procedures, and people involved have been asked and answered. Nonetheless, it is critically important to get urgent emergency messages out to your audience rapidly and this required examining both the tools and processes for communicating. In the past, “telephone calling trees” were put in place to help spread the word to a large number of individuals. However, this approach is inefficient, prone to errors and has many shortcomings when you need to reach everyone right away. Today, it is necessary to have a sophisticated communication plan and up to date communication technologies to meet the due diligence expectations for crisis communication planning.

Avoiding Communication Breakdowns

All too often crises and disasters are not managed effectively despite having a well developed plan. The most common factor (after not having a plan or not having a well designed plan) that leads to crisis management failures are breakdowns in communication at one or more levels. Effective crisis communication is essential to successful management of crises, disasters, and emergencies. One must go beyond a review of available communication modalities and technical systems to sustain successful communication. It is critical to anticipate and recognize the common vulnerabilities to sustaining effective communication.

Are you fully prepared for creating/sending the right message to the right people at the right time in the crisis?

Do you know what you will need to communicate, to whom, when, and how during each phase of the crisis?


Do you have messages ready which are reliable, valid, and effective to alert, inform, and generate the appropriate behavioral response from each of your targeted audiences?

During a crisis your key personnel may be unavailable for substantial periods of time or may be lost permanently; organizations will need to communicate and notify different key target audiences representing various demographics; the crisis will create pressures, constraints, and stress which in turn will negatively affect access, comprehension, and compliance with messages; misunderstandings and rumors will arise to create havoc; key people will hunger for accurate and useful information; and updated two way communication will be of the utmost importance to the functionality of your operations and care for your people. Every organization needs a crisis communication plan to mitigate, survive, and recover from a disaster.

Failures in Communication = Failures in Response

At a time when communication may be most important to a business’s effectiveness – a crisis or disaster – sustaining effective communication is particularly challenged. Even in everyday situations, there are communication problems, breakdowns, and misunderstandings that arise; add stress, rapidly changing situations, and uncertainty to the equation and breakdowns will escalate rapidly.

Often communication issues are attributed to issues with inter-personal and inter-group communications, personality clashes, and uncertainties as to hierarchy and responsibility. Time and again, research has shown that failures in crisis management and disaster recovery are almost always related to a lack of a competent communication plan prior to the crisis. This fact is not lost on disaster-response professionals and first responders. Understandably, communication plans that outline responsibility, hierarchy, and team roles often receive significant attention in crisis planning. However, this is only one part of the effective crisis-response equation. The failures and limits of communication technology may have an even greater impact. Breakdowns in both message and medium, the need for communications mobility and interoperability, inadequate redundancy, back-ups, and alternative means of interaction often hamper or totally incapacitate normally effective response teams. Without reliable, standards-based communication technology, the ability to effectively transmit and receive information as well as maintain effective control and coordination of personnel in a crisis becomes nearly impossible.

Communication Planning

Communication challenges will occur at the precise time that people of distracted, preoccupied, and overstressed with the pressure of the crisis to devote all of their attention and cognitive focus on trying to understand messages and comply with instructions. This creates a very challenging communication problem. Prudent companies will thoroughly prepare and have various communication contingency plans in plan to sustain coordination and communication with all key constituents before, during, and after a crisis. The crisis communication planning process is a key priority for overall crisis preparedness. In the end, your crisis communication plan must be prepared to overcome these types of challenges.

All businesses face common communication challenges during crises, including: receiving inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information, especially early in the critical events; rapidly changing circumstances; and a variety of sensitive HR and personnel information issues.

Crises are by their very nature events that are usually beyond the power of “routine” processes and procedures. The methods, processes, procedures, and even people that handle the day-to-day events cannot be consistently relied upon to successfully manage crisis events and ensure the survival of both people and your business. You must anticipate the particular communication needs for your organization during a crisis. You must be prepared to take the initiative to effectively communicate despite the disruptions and people out of their usual position. You should assume that there will be breakdowns of “routine” systems and technologies during the peak periods of a business disruption. Your target audiences will experience high levels of stress (both individuals and teams) and these factors present an additional level of communication challenges for which you must be prepared. People will have aggressive demands for information during a crisis. All of the decisions about when to communicate, how, and to whom will be subject to critical analysis from your stakeholders, constituents, the news media and the general public.

Pre-crisis education and outreach are critical to preparing you audience both for the crisis as well as to pre-position knowledge with your audiences that will aid your messages’ effectiveness during an outbreak. Understanding what a crisis is, what needs to be done at all levels to prepare for crisis influenza, and what could happen during a crisis helps us make informed decisions both as individuals and as a nation. When a crisis occurs, the public must be able to depend on its government to provide scientifically sound public health information quickly, openly and dependably. The capacity to assess risk and employ effective mechanisms to mitigate and manage risk has advanced far but one key factor to the success of any risk management is risk communication.

Crisis communication planning begins with self-assessment. First you need to determine the basic objectives for your communication plan. Determine to whom or who you need to communicate with before, during, and after the crisis. Clarify how you intend to reach them and what are your alternative channels (modalities) for connecting with them. Establish when and how often you will need to communicate with these key target audiences and whether you have the capability for two way/interactive communication.

The following is a sample list of common challenges faced during a crisis:

  • Anticipating communication needs
  • Taking the initiative to communicate
  • Overcoming breakdowns of communication systems and technologies
  • Accounting for high levels of stress placed on individuals and teams
  • Adapting to rapidly occurring events and changing information
  • Meeting aggressive demands for information
  • Surviving critical analysis from the media and public


All businesses face common communication challenges during crises, including: receiving inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information, especially early in the critical events; rapidly changing circumstances; and a variety of sensitive HR and personnel information issues. Crises are by their very nature events that are usually beyond the power of “routine” processes and procedures. The methods, processes, procedures, and even people that handle the day-to-day events cannot be consistently relied upon to successfully manage crisis events and ensure the survival of both people and your business. You must anticipate the particular communication needs for your organization during a crisis outbreak. You must be prepared to take the initiative to effectively communicate despite the disruptions and people out of their usual position. You should assume that there will be breakdowns of “routine” systems and technologies during the peak periods of a crisis. Your target audiences will experience high levels of stress (both individuals and teams) and these factors present an additional level of communication challenges for which you must be prepared. Although crises are “slow moving” disasters compared with many other types of threats, on a local level rapidly occurring events/changing information will create challenges for your communication plans. People will have aggressive demands for information during a crisis. All of the decisions about when to communicate, how, and to whom will be subject to critical analysis from your stakeholders, constituents, the news media and the general public.

Pre-crisis education and outreach are critical to preparing you audience both for the crisis as well as to pre-position knowledge with your audiences that will aid your messages’ effectiveness during an outbreak. Understanding what a crisis is, what needs to be done at all levels to prepare for crisis influenza, and what could happen during a crisis helps us make informed decisions both as individuals and as a nation. During the crisis, the public must be able to depend on its government to provide scientifically sound public health information quickly, openly and dependably. The capacity to assess risk and employ effective mechanisms to mitigate and manage risk has advanced far but one key factor to the success of any risk management is risk communication.

Crisis communication planning begins with self-assessment. First you need to determine the basic objectives for your communication plan. Determine to whom or who you need to communicate with before, during, and after the crisis. Clarify how you intend to reach them and what are your alternative channels (modalities) for connecting with them. Establish when and how often you will need to communicate with these key target audiences and whether you have the capability for two way/interactive communication. Then create specific messages that you will have available to use (to provide information, warnings, notification, and requests for behavioral compliance). Finally test, revise, and continue enhancing your communication plans so that you will be ready when the crisis unfolds.

A crisis communication plan should detail how your organization plans to communicate (and who is responsible for each action) with the following during and following a disaster. Take all of your potential target audiences, including: employees/families, customers, suppliers/vendors/partners, local community, emergency responders, government authorities, and the news media.

Messaging Systems

There is also a role for automated emergency communication solutions in your crisis communication plans. The first task facing the disaster manager is to initiate or accelerate the information flow. This can be a formidable challenge if the communication center or EOC has been disrupted or if people are out of position or critical communication lines are down. Automated notification simplifies the task by reducing the number of messages that must be initiated. An automated system allows the coordinator to issue a single message to an entire list of people – whether that group consists of employees, customers, parents of schoolchildren, first responders, or reporters.

The chances of initiating and delivering messages successfully are much greater if the initiator has to send only five messages instead of five thousand. There should be multiple ways to initiate a message. At the very least, disaster coordinators should be able to access and use their notification system through the Internet and by telephone. They should not be required to be at a particular computer or telephone to initiate a message. The system should also be able to deliver messages from multiple initiators. Managers should be able to delegate authority to several associates so emergency notification will not fail if one person is incapacitated or unavailable. In addition, for organizations whose message recipients are geographically dispersed, it can be advantageous to have a notification system with a ‘map-based’ tool for selecting message recipients, so you can define a communication path based upon a geographic area.

After a message has been initiated, it must be delivered to everyone on the delivery list. There are two important issues: whether the messages will arrive and when they will arrive. To maximize the likelihood that messages will be delivered in a timely manner, your emergency notification system should be able to send messages to all types of contact devices – phone, cell, fax, computer (e-mail and IM), pager, PDA (incl. BlackBerry) – and in as many formats as possible (voice, text, SMS). The notification system should permit multiple contact paths for each person on the list, and allow a different order for each list member. (For example, Member 1 might designate cell phone first, then e-mail, then fax; Member 2 might designate work phone first, then home phone, then pager.) The notification system must be able to make unlimited attempts to contact each person on the list, until there is confirmation of receipt of the message or the message update.

Nearly as important as reaching all the critical audiences is sending messages only to those who need to receive them. Sending extraneous messages in times of emergency can have serious unintended consequences, including chaos and crowding at the disaster site, an influx of unwanted phone calls, and even mass panic. To channel messages correctly, your messaging tools should have the capacity for unlimited groups and subgroups of target audiences. Crisis communicators may need to poll employees from the seventh floor to make sure they were all safely evacuated from a fire; instruct employees in the Network Services division to report to a backup site the next morning; or recall some ambulance crews but not others. Relationships between list members must be identifiable. This allows crisis communicators to make selections based on the relationships – for example, contacting “all the senior managers and executives in the Chicago office”.

Communication flows constantly in two directions during a crisis - incoming and outgoing messages, information, and meta-messages. Usually, just sending out messages isn’t enough; the crisis manager must learn who has been contacted successfully, and, sometimes, what their responses are. An emergency notification system can be a great mechanism for receiving and reporting such responses. To facilitate two-way communication, the notification system should be able to receive an active response, such as a key-pad entry, to confirm that a message has been delivered successfully. The notification system should also be able to survey or poll recipients. For example, if first responders are being notified, the coordinator’s message might ask them to press 1 if they are already at the disaster site, press 2 if they are on their way there, and press 3 if they are unavailable to respond to the emergency. Reports of all message delivery attempts, confirmations, and polling results should be easily available by Internet and fax. Summary reports can quickly communicate the overall picture, such as how many recipients have been reached, how many are on their way, and so forth. Detail reports can show where individual follow-up is needed.

The introduction of next generation automated notification, or mass notification, systems is in response to these shortcomings. Automated systems are more accurate, more effective, faster and often much less expensive than manual communication systems. Automated emergency notification systems were created to deliver a large volume of text, voice, or data messages to any size audience and in a short amount of time. Messages are sent through multiple communication channels including computing, wireless and telephony technologies, which have matured in the last few years.

Automated emergency notification systems come in a variety of basic architectures and configurations. Some automated notification systems are operated internally, while others are operated by vendors. As technology has improved, so have the solutions for mass communication, with three distinct generations of technological improvements. These three generations include on-premise “box” solutions (Generation I technology), application service providers (Generation II technology) and web-native SaaS hosted solution providers (Generation III technology). As notification technology evolved, the speed, scale and reliability of each successive generation improve exponentially.
 
An automated communication system should be evaluated for its inherent ability to help a crisis team perform their communication management tasks. Initiating or accelerating the information flow can be a formidable task if communication lines are down. Automated notification simplifies the job by reducing the number of messages that must be initiated. An automated system allows the initiator to issue a single message to an entire list of people, which could include employees, customers, media or management.

It is vital to have open, quick and responsive communication throughout the lifecycle of emergency. The best way to do this is to weave it through the emergency preparedness plan. Effective crisis and emergency management is often directly dependent upon effective communication. It is imperative that you carefully prepare to ensure that your communication performance is at its best – at the worst of times.

Creating Messages
Messages that are under-loaded are ineffective in that they do not serve any purpose at all. The information flow is so slow or small that it shares little information and leads the other party into frustration, and worse, retaliation. This action should be avoided especially in conjunction with the media. Overloaded messages are too much heavy information flow, best described as a prosecutor who asks the defendant for the information pertinent to a case and is given all of the information possible. The recipient is left to sift through all of the verbage and inconsequential bits to find the important kernels. The key to managing the correct loading of messages is to find the most appropriate medium for passing those messages along. It is recommended to use a rich media (call, face-to-face) during crisis to get the best results.

Messages may be blocked as well, by misperception or miscommunication, or by physical and mental blockages, such as stress, family distraction, noise, etc. A crisis communication plan must have steps in place to avoid blockages or incorrectly loaded messages during a crisis so that the right people get the right information in a timely manner. Misunderstandings can be caused by cultural differences, frames of reference, uncertainty reduction drive, connotative and denotative meanings, slang and jargon, or categorizing. Communication factors related to the environment, semantics, logic, ideology, and psychology also influence communication as a whole. We hear, but we often don’t listen and thus we don’t understand the points being made. In order to remedy this, seek first to understand, and then seek to be understood. Active listening and empathetic understanding are also key aspects in reducing misunderstandings that many businesses underestimate.

Messages must be written in simple and clear forms. Crisis messages need to be comprehendible and built with vocabulary and language which can be easily understood by the audience, even under possible stress and duress of the crisis environment.

A crisis communication plan can determine (in advance of the crisis) what constitutes the right amount of information by assessing how people understand, interpret, and act on messages. There are many factors that affect understanding, interpretation, and decision-making during a crisis, such as:

  • Cognitive processing capabilities
  • Perceived risk
  • Information loading
  • Attitude-behavioral consistency
  • Uncertainty reduction drive
  • Situation awareness
  • Selective attention
  • Reaction time
  • Semantic memory


Managing Messages

It is important to get a response message out quickly. Your organization’s message will need to be crafted, coordinated, and communicated in a variety of channels. The message will need to be appropriately timed and delivered. The message created should be consistent and coordinated. Messages need to be managed just as much as recovery operations need to be managed. As emphasized, make an effort to understand the expectations and information needs of all stakeholders. Don’t underestimate their general need to know and be reassured that the organization is acting ethically and with professionalism. Within the constraints of legal requirements and proprietary business concerns, the message should be as forthright and honest as is legally and prudently possible. Even if the news reported is negative, it is always better for stakeholders to learn negative information directly rather than having it “discovered” and presented in the news media under the implication of concealment or evasion. In such cases, the negative impact of the information is amplified by the implicit impression of a possible cover-up or reluctance to disclose the information. Efforts to stall, hide bad news, or stonewall in the midst of emerging disaster are at the root of many of the most damaging and disastrous corporate reputation disasters over the past quarter century.

If the crisis has caused harm in some way, then the message should be one of compassion for those who have suffered or been negatively affected. It must express concern and empathy for anyone who has suffered as a consequence of the misconduct, without necessarily assuming blame or responsibility. Do not craft a message that may be perceived as insensitive or appearing to lack compassion or concern. Also, the message should be created with wording that describes the disaster or crisis from the viewpoint of public interest and social norms, not just from that of the company. All public messages must clearly demonstrate understanding of and commitment to the well-being of the community as well as the interests of all stakeholders.

Many aspects of this message can be prepared in advance. Have some general scripts of messages that endorse core values and reaffirm commitments. It may help to have pre-planned scenarios, detailed response action plans, and pre-made statements ahead of time. Although basic messages can be prepared beforehand, a coordinated comprehensive message strategy appropriate to a specific crisis will only emerge with active teamwork and attentive management. The specific selection of when, where, and how to get the strategic messages to audiences is an essential aspect of surviving the impact of a disaster on a company.

Mapping Messages

Message maps are crisis communication tools, blueprints to help simplify complex messages. They are important because message communication in the midst of a crisis is hampered by absentee rates, panic, and lack of planning. Message maps are clear, concise messages that speed communication during chaos. They are appropriate before, during, and after an event and allow an organization to make better use of information prior to a crisis. Formalized, planned communication eliminates the potential for erroneous messages born of panic and chaos. In creating message maps, employees and constituents are reassured of an organization's ability to handle a disaster.

During a crisis, it is imperative for a business to have a written plan for when that crisis happens. Message maps help organizations communicate clearly during a crisis. A message map should be created prior to a crisis, so that organizations have the time and resources to explore all possible scenarios. Planned communication ensures messages are understood by the widest possible audience.

Message maps convey information specific to an organization, such as work resumption, post-disaster insurance availability, and bereavement policies. Your business can use examples of other company’s message maps, but must design your own for the unique aspects of your organization. For example, a message map detailing what a South-western organization will do in the event of an earthquake will not be useful for a North-eastern company. Designing a message map that is unique to the organization also serves the needs of different demographic groups within a company, with multiple messages for various demographic groups. A message map must be sensitive to the functions of each aspect within an organization.

The message map is a critical part of crisis communication management and must use all of the crisis communication tools so far covered in earlier chapters of this manuscript. Most importantly, the message map must be written at or below a sixth-grade reading level, because reading ability and comprehension drops approximately four grade levels during times of stress.

The message map serves as a way to organize complex information into simple actions and commands that will facilitate successful handling of a crisis. Message maps should never be created during a crisis – in order to be effective they must be proven useful in advance. Creating message maps ahead of time allows organizations to take into account knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs that suggest how target audiences will react to messages. They should not be hard for everyone to understand, or written with technical jargon or high-level reading words specific to a certain department within the general organization. Message maps should not be long, convoluted dissertations on what to do in a crisis – short and simple is the key. These are the road maps for communication that will help guide you to a successful destination.

Conclusion

During a crisis, business continuity managers and disaster recovery employers will play a key role in protecting the health and safety of employees and ensuring the continuity of business operations as well as limiting the negative impact to the economy and society. Planning for crisis influenza is critical. Companies that provide vital infrastructure services, such as power and telecommunication, also have a special responsibility to plan for continued operation in a crisis and should plan accordingly. As with any catastrophe, continuity, contingency, and disaster recovery planning is essential. However scientists, health care providers, government agencies, schools, and private sector business leaders all agree with the World Health Organization that one of the most critical aspects of preparation and successful management of the coming crisis is communication.

Communicating vital information, persuasion for behavior changes, coordination of rapidly changing requirements and expectations, as well as messages for empowerment, reassurance, and recovery are all essential for any other plan or policy to work. The needs to communicate health and safety information, public policies, quarantines, revised work and school schedules, Human Resource and insurance information, coordinate changing timelines and expectations, closures, delivery adjustments, as well as hygienic and behavior requirements to mitigate the outbreak as well as many other aspects will be overwhelming.

About the Author

Dr. Robert C. Chandler, (Ph.D., University of Kansas; M. A. Wake Forest University;
B. A. Harding College) is Professor of Communication and Director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida. He is the former Chair of the Communication Division at the Center for Communication and Business at Pepperdine University. Dr. Chandler also holds an appointment as an adjunct Professor of Communication and Conflict Management in the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law.

Dr. Chandler is an internationally recognized researcher and scholar with more than 100 academic and professional papers, including widely circulated “white papers” on emergency and crisis communication. Dr. Chandler has authored more than 50 academic and professional publications, and he is the author or co-author of eight books including Pandemic! Communication Challenges and Solutions; Pandemic: Business Continuity Planning Priorities for the Coming Outbreak; Media Relations: Disaster Recovery and the News Media; and Managing the Risks for Corporate Integrity: How to Survive an Ethical Misconduct Disaster. Dr. Chandler is an expert in organizational and business communication with a specialty in organizational crisis communication including communication during emergencies, crises, and disasters, emergency notification communication, crisis leaderships, crisis teams, and audience analysis for message comprehension and response. Dr. Chandler has provided subject matter expertise and service to numerous companies, schools, associations, businesses, not-for-profits, and government agencies.

 Contact Information

Robert C. Chandler, Ph.D., Director
Nicholson School of Communication
University of Central Florida
P. O. Box 161344
Orlando, FL 32816

Telephone 407.823.2683
Fax 407.823.6360

Email: rcchandl@mail.ucf.edu


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