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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Spoken Word Trumps All: Practical Tips for Communicating Effectively During a Disaster

Recently, the IT protection division of a global telecommunications company conducted a crisis exercise. The goal was to test the business continuity plan, not to solve the problem.
The scenario involved a massive power outage during the darkest morning hours, due to severe weather in more than two dozen cities around the world. Access to any kind of computer-based communication or collaboration was eliminated – no servers, no call center, no desktops computers, no e-mail. It not only shut down manufacturing but order taking, and shipping and receiving. It forced the players to actually talk, yes talk to one another and others, both face to face and by cell phone. And it revealed that the ability to communicate verbally, this most basic of skills can be pivotal to swift business recovery efforts.

The Importance of Oral Communications

It was a lesson learned during on Sept. 11, 2001, when handheld communications among rescue teams was inconsistent, landline telephone connections were random and the city was in a virtual information blackout. However, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was everywhere. His words were galvanizing to emergency responders on the ground, encouraging to business leaders and comforting to victims and citizens. When all else fails electronically, the ability of the crisis response and business continuity teams to effectively communicate verbally with both internal and external stakeholders is paramount.

Because most of us have been speaking by age 4, there is an assumption that we actually communicate when we talk. Yet under the duress and uncertainty of a disaster, the bar is raised considerably on any responder’s communications skills. Once the disaster hits, it’s a race against the clock to solve the problem and restore operations. And while business continuity plans reside within the IT or IS departments of many organizations, the lessons apply to any function that must communicate during disaster recovery, including operations, legal, human resources, finance, EH&S, quality, and others.

The accompanying communication pyramid represents the key considerations in communications during a disaster.

Defining the business goal: It must first be determined what the team and the operation are driving toward. What is the desired and measurable outcome of all business continuity efforts?

Knowing the key audiences: During the intensity and emotionally charged atmosphere of a disaster, response teams can be clouded in their judgment of the most important stakeholders.

Employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, business partners and others all are impacted to some degree, but at different points in the recovery effort. Knowing which audiences should be the target of messages and what point in a crisis is critical.

Effective messages: Good strategic messages are built around the first two layers of the pyramid, the business goal and the audience. The message model below provides additional guidance on messaging.

You, the messenger: While not everyone is a gifted communicator, it is possible to leave key audiences with a net impression of a competent and compassionate team or team member. Long after the crisis and the words of the message are forgotten, stakeholders will be left with a sense of the human qualities of the responders for better or for worse.

Often, responders communicate too little or too much information, or simply don’t know what information is most relevant. To help responders focus on the most critical communication needs in a crisis, this four-part message model applies to all communications. It equips responders with an organized approach to internal and external communication. It helps the company solve the problem and resume business. Ultimately it centers on the key questions that any stakeholder, employees, customers, vendors & suppliers, business partners, regulators and others have during the heat of a crisis:

  • “How does this affect me?”
  • “What is being done about it?”
  • “What should I do about it?”

 The Four-Part Message Model

The four-part message model provides a structure to help disaster recovery professionals organize communications efforts in the early hours of a crisis.

1. Show concern and compassion for those impacted by the crisis.
Every crisis has a potential impact on an organization’s most important constituencies. It is important for the response professionals to consider the needs and concerns of internal and external stakeholders and ensure that communication efforts address those concerns. Articulating to key audiences that you are aware of the impact of the crisis on them helps build common ground and preserve (or restore) trust and credibility. Every stakeholder wants to be reassured that you know who they are, you have considered their needs, and that their needs are important to you.
Statements that show concern:
“We regret the impact this situation has on our customers. We are committed to finding them alternative supplies until we can resume our normal business operations.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those individuals who were injured today.”

2. Detail responsible actions being taken to address the crisis.
In a crisis it is human nature for your key constituencies to assume the worst. This defensive mechanism is fed by growing skepticism and cynicism regarding the behaviors and values of corporate leaders. To overcome this hurdle it is essential for responders to detail the many actions the organization may have underway to confront the crisis. Your communications should outline the many things the organization has done or will be doing. The action plan details for within the organization is important to both colleagues and external constituents.
Statements that detail responsible actions:
“Of course we have activated our crisis management team and our emergency response efforts. We have secured the affected facility, accounted for our employees and notified local, state and federal authorities.”
“As part of our response plan we have begun shifting our information technology functions to an offsite emergency operations center to minimize the disruption to our business partners.”

3. Describe cooperative efforts to work with stakeholders and third-parties to resolve the crisis.
Oftentimes a crisis damages an organization’s standing with its primary audiences. Restoring credibility is an arduous task but the triage must begin immediately. So, in the earliest hours of a crisis the organization should be seen as reaching out to and cooperating with other third-parties who may enjoy better credibility. Share the problem and the solution. This runs counter to the “hero instinct” within many corporate chieftains who believe they can go it alone. However, working with others is seen as a sign of strength and wisdom, not weakness.
Statements that demonstrate cooperation:
“We’re grateful for the assistance we have received from local officials and emergency responders. They are an important part of our response team.”
“We are coordinating our recovery efforts with our contractors, suppliers and customer representatives to ensure we focus on the most critical needs first. We’re working side by side to minimize the impact and resolve the crisis.”

4. Demonstrate resolve to overcome the crisis and restore business continuity.

One of many lessons learned from Giuliani’s response to 9/11 was the importance of demonstrating a commitment to overcome adversity. Even in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, Giuliani was talking of New York City’s determination to recover. He demonstrated strength and resolve and transferred these abilities to others. It was clear from the beginning that the city was not going to be defeated by the tragedy of the day. Leaders carry the burden of inspiring others to do more than they thought possible.

Statements that show resolve:

“We will succeed in overcoming this tragedy. We are committed to recovering and continuing to serve the many stakeholders who are dependent upon our success.
“Our commitment to restoring our organization will not waver. We are grateful for and strengthened by the support of our many customers, suppliers, employees, and shareholders.”

 The Concentric Circles of Influence

Effective message development is driven by understanding to who one is speaking. As indicated by the concentric circles of Influence diagram, X marks the center of the crisis. While the order of stakeholders in the cascading rings may change based on the scenario or time into the recovery, those closest to the X are considered those most impacted by the disaster. Responses and communications should be targeted toward those in the middle and then move outward.

Stakeholders who are further removed from the incident generally are more interested in knowing whether the organization is addressing the needs of stakeholders in the inner rings. For example, if potential business partners observe that your communications are addressing the needs and concerns of customers and current business partners, they are more inclined to be supportive. How you work and communicate with the most affected groups will influence the perceptions (and actions) of the outer groups. In a tragedy at a facility, regulators are likely to be less aggressive as they observe effective communications taking place with, impacted employees, community groups and fence line neighbors.

Anyone who has ever been part of a disaster recovery and business continuity effort knows of the information vacuum that occurs during the first critical hours of a crisis. Key to effective communications during the disaster is “heads-up communication” with stakeholders. Proactive outreach and grassroots efforts will help manage expectations and ensure cooperation in the event of a disaster.

The Lesson for Disaster Recovery Professionals

Like any muscle, effective communications skills are not a given. They must be developed over time and preferably not under the duress of a disaster. And if improving business recovery efforts is not incentive enough, professional success and advancement might be. Increasingly good leadership skills are interchangeable with good communications skills. The ability to persuade and motivate, particularly during the uncertainty of a crisis will always prove beneficial and may ultimately result in advancement. Disaster recovery individuals and teams need to consider their communications ability in advance of an exercise and take on-going measures to improve the skill set. In the interim, find templates and techniques that support a consistent approach to communications.

 



Stephanie Nora is managing partner of Wixed Pope Nora Thompson Ltd. and directs the Chicago office. She provides strategic counsel and crisis communications training to a variety of Fortune 500 corporations and has developed specialized training programs for business continuity teams and senior executives. Previously, she was the public affairs director for a leading tourism industry. She is a member of the American Society of Training & Development and a member of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. She can be reached at snora@wpntworld.com.

Ray Thompson is managing partner of Wixed Pope Nora Thompson’s Houston office. He provides individualized instruction to newsmakers including corporate executives, government officials, and journalists. He previously served on the board of directors of the American Legislative Exchange Council and as a corporate fellow at the National Governors Associations. He also served as director of issues management for a Fortune 15 global company. He can be reached at rthompson@wpntworld.com

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