Crisis Communication: 8 principles for Emergency Management

Crisis Communication: 8 principles for Emergency Management

No organisation today can do without a detailed Crisis Management and Crisis Communication Plan. Whether it be accidents or disasters, weather or health emergency management, major natural or man-made disasters, what makes the difference is planning beforehand. 

 

Emergency management: Sixty minutes determine success or failure

In emergency management there is a window of time, sixty minutes according to New York University professor J. E. Lukaszewski, in which the fate of an organisation is decided. In these moments, success or failure depend on the combination of known elements, i.e. on what has been planned at a time before the crisis, and on environmental and human variables that cannot be foreseen. If the unexpected is by definition incalculable, known elements are. 

How is it possible to plan for them? How can emergencies be managed so as to make the best use of the fateful ‘golden hour’, and avert a major crisis? 

 

Crisis Management: What it is and why we cannot do without it

In the life of every organisation, it is very likely that a crisis situation will occur sooner or later. Emergencies are never unforeseen events, they are rather the result of something that has been neglected, which will be felt sooner or later, we do not know exactly when. In fact, statistics show that 69% of top managers surveyed by PWC have experienced at least one corporate crisis from 2014 to 2019, while only 45% of communicators admit to having a defined crisis communication plan (JOTW). 

Planning activities to manage an emergency is therefore crucial, to avoid being found unprepared and having to rely on fate. Whatever the context in which a company operates, there are common and well-established strategies to identify threats and possible crisis scenarios, and thus plan emergency management.

 

Risk Management: Identifying and managing risk, threats, vulnerabilities and impacts of a crisis

Risk management operations anticipate possible crisis scenarios and propose concrete solutions. They are geared towards business continuity and organisational resilience, and are crucial in the face of those small events that Warren Buffett describes as “capable of destroying reputation in five minutes, even if it took twenty years to build it”. 

In order to preserve both economic and reputational assets, the risk management plan must from the outset draw up a scale that prioritises the possible crisis scenarios an organisation may face. Having defined the scenarios and estimated the impacts, the next step involves the integrated planning of Crisis Management actions and a Crisis Communication plan. 

 

The eight fundamental principles of Crisis Communication

According to Giancarlo Sturloni, lecturer and risk communication expert, “The ability to communicate risk is considered essential for promoting health and protecting nature, dealing with crises and emergencies, managing controversies, coming to terms with uncertainty and fostering a relationship of trust and collaboration between citizens, experts and institutions.” Also, almost two years Covid-19 pandemic and of communication management have made us all aware of how important it is to correctly communicate science in times of crisis, especially when we find ourselves in an emergency. We all remember, for example, the debate at the beginning of the pandemic on whether or not to use masks, and the much sadder and more recent one on the effectiveness of vaccines.

“A correct Crisis Communication strategy always relies on a few fundamental principles, which aim to encourage aware and responsible behaviour in citizens, who must be viewed as protagonists, not as mere participants in the management of an emergency,” explains Giorgio Sestili, Head of Marketing & Communication at Deep Blue, a scientific journalist, collaborator of various Italian media outlets and author of several publications on issues relating to the pandemic. “These principles are based on a fundamental element: the relationship of trust between citizens and those called upon to manage an emergency.” 

To build such a relationship, the eight fundamental principles of Crisis Communication are certainly useful: 

1. Never deny, hide or downplay an emergency

According to Giancarlo Sturloni: “There is no more important (and disregarded) rule in communication in times of crisis or emergency. Lying about risk is the easiest way to lose trust, and without trust a message will be ignored or rejected, jeopardising safety. Downplaying danger can also lead to part of the population or stakeholders not taking the threat seriously and not doing enough to protect themselves. Often the problem is apathy, not alarmism.” 

2. Gather all the information necessary to understand the emergency

One cannot communicate anything without first having a comprehensive view of the situation. There must therefore be a careful collection, from reliable sources, of all possible data. Only after the information has been gathered can the implementation of the plan proceed. 

3. Sharing, timeliness and transparency

It is necessary to share in a timely and transparent manner any information on the crisis or emergency and the countermeasures implemented. The purpose of Crisis Communication is to make people aware of the danger in order to promote conscious choices to protect individual and collective safety. Negative news should not be hidden but communicated in person. 

4. Empathy and inclusiveness: concerns of citizens and customers must be respected

No crisis is realistically ever only about an individual, and it is essential to know the point of view of those involved. How do they feel about what is happening? Reassurance should not be given at any cost: an adequate level of alertness ensures greater adherence to self-protective behaviour and encourages greater cooperation in risk management. 

5. Authoritativeness 

An organisation must be willing to share its sources and rationale behind the measures taken to increase the sense of participation. The attitude (and tone, if it is a public conference) must be professional and convey that each choice is based on the careful analysis of everyone’s needs. 

6. Positivity 

In psychology, it is well known that overly alarming content or images alienate message recipients. Therefore, whatever the magnitude of the news, solutions must nevertheless be envisaged, firmly emphasising the organisation’s values. 

7. Adapt communication to the profile of recipients 

It is necessary to take into account recipients’ perceptions, knowledge, experience, values and attitudes towards risk. No message can ‘speak to everyone’: communication must be adapted to the profile of the target audience to be truly effective. 

8. Use all communication channels 

Understanding the logic of mass media is essential and using all available communication channels, traditional and digital, to reach the different target audiences. During an emergency, no one can be left behind.  

 

Research activities at the European level

Thanks to twenty years of participation in European research, at Deep Blue we have gained extensive experience in a variety of so-called safety-critical and high-tech sectors

  • aviation, rail and maritime transport
  • critical transport and energy infrastructures
  • manufacturing, storage and logistics industries

Over the years, we have collaborated on numerous projects on climate and the environment, cyber-security and protection from cyber-attacks, emergency management, and how to communicate in times of crisis, taking into account different scenarios and contexts, such as cultural, environmental, economic and socio-political aspects. 

 

Our Crisis Communication consulting and training services

Our approach revolves around the analysis and improvement of fundamental skills for managing communication in emergency situations, to guide clients through the various stages of planning and managing communication in times of crisis, from the mapping of macro-scenarios to drafting operational procedures, with tools and methodologies to improve communication performance. 

Specifically, top managers, executives and employees will be able to implement and develop:

  • The ability to anticipate possible crisis scenarios and manage communication challenges, mapping relevant actors and stakeholders. 
  • Ability to monitor and identify crisis scenarios in real-time, through scripts and templates for gathering information prepared before the crisis. 
  • Ability to communicate proactively in times of crisis, with timeliness and confidence. 
  • Ability to adapt communication according to scenarios and their evolution. 
  • Ability to analyse scenarios ex-post through a set of indicators, activating any necessary additional interfaces and processes. 

The roadmap we propose will lead to the mapping of the various stakeholders affected by a possible emergency and the internal communication (definition of roles and functions, horizontal and vertical) and external communication processes needed to involve them. It will therefore be essential to also map the other organisations to be involved in the various crisis scenarios, such as: 

  • client companies, business partners and suppliers;
  • public safety authorities, health and emergency response authorities;
  • political, institutional, and local government stakeholders;
  • investors and stock exchange authorities;

Finally, we establish the best strategies to communicate with the general public and the media, both through traditional and digital channels. 

For more information on our Crisis Communication services and training

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