Comm Series: Crisis Comm 101

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Recently, I interviewed for a company that was interested if I had done any form of crisis communication. I didn’t share my experience working for a private water concessionaire when a man accidentally fell off a ventilation chamber and plunged to his death. This happened several years back. Talking about it would certainly be long and arduous, and we didn’t have all night to talk. Instead, I shared about attending what was supposed to be a short meeting with a handful of people which turned into an angry mob.  I said that the angry mob experience was pretty scary. At that time, I didn’t think I’d get out of the situation alive.

Crisis communication is something that most companies prepare for. To some extent, some crises may be prevented by drafting a policy-procedure-guideline. This is supposed to be “the bible”, a how to for handling any form of crisis, i.e. protesters, bomb threat, attacks in the media, etc. Naturally, the crisis depends on the industry. Take the recent data privacy breach hounding Facebook which deserves a separate discussion altogether.  Facebook started as a social networking site and grew to at least 2.2 billion active users in x years. Because it is handling large data, Mark Zuckerberg should have taken greater pains to safeguard user privacy.

Going back, I think that nothing ever prepares any good manager for a crisis. Most managers wish that a crisis wouldn’t happen on his or her watch. Any comms manager who says that he or she likes doing crisis communication is lying. 🙂

Learning from the first crisis: man falling off a water ventilation chamber, it was important to:

1.Know what you’re supposed to do in the crisis communication plan.

My boss at that time insisted that we visit the place of the accident. I disagreed with him. I said that we would just add to the growing number of kibitzers in the area. We weren’t engineers nor were we part of the search team. In other words, we would be more useful in the office doing our reports.

2. Communicate.

Communicate with the key members of your management team. We had a crisis communication meeting in the morning and in the evening to apprise everybody on the status of the search. This way, everyone knew what was going on and we were all on the same page.

3. Think.

Our value as managers is to think, and to think out of the box if need be. If strategy A won’t work, move on to strategy B, C, even Z. In a crisis, there are no stupid ideas.  There are, however, many stupid managers who are nothing but warm bodies in the crisis communication meetings.

4. Manage.

Manage the regulators if you belong to a regulated industry. Apprise them of what’s going on.  Manage the media. Explain what you need to explain. Keep the information simple and easy to understand and refrain from jargon. Manage your customers and update them. Assure them that there is no health or safety issue if there really is none. Quell people’s fears and ignorance with the right information.

Learning from the second crisis: angry mob, it was important to:

1.Speak the local language.

It helps if you can speak the local dialect. It gives you a connection with the people. It also makes you more trustworthy.

2. Listen.

Sometimes, people just need to vent and have you listen to them. You need not respond, especially if you can’t commit anything new.

3. Respect.

Always be respectful. Never underestimate people’s intelligence. They may not be as articulate as you are but they have rights.

4. Be careful.

Try to calm people down. Smiling helps especially if people see that you genuinely want to help them. Be careful about humor though because what’s funny to you may not be funny to others.

Finally, invite the local police to the meetings – in case things get rowdy and ugly. Never put yourself in a position where your life is at risk. Sure you have a job to do but your life is more important than any key result area.

Crisis communication in the age of new media is unchartered territory. What will happen in the coming days to Facebook, the regulators, and the tech industry has major implications and bears watching.


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