5 Principles for Effective Crisis Communications

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5 Principles for Effective Crisis Communications

Crisis communications management. The phrase alone can cause a shiver to run down our spine as we silently ask that a crisis never befall us or the organizations we work with. But crisis communications management need not be feared. In fact, it can offer your organization an opportunity to strengthen, build, and unite internal and external stakeholders for a better organization. Crisis communications management begins before a crisis occurs and is an ongoing process that should be built on principles put into practice before, during, and after a crisis. In other words, always. Crisis management is not a one-time situation that may or may not occur. It should be an ongoing process in your day-to-day operations.

With today’s changing communications environment, threats to your brand, reputation or business can come at your organization from anywhere and everywhere—the physical and the virtual space. Processes that only address the physical threats will not protect your company. Today organizations require a 360 plan and crisis management architecture that:

  • Encompasses all communications platforms, both as sources of outgoing communication from the company, as well as sources of incoming threats
  • Is independent of the passing threat and able to be effectively activated regardless of the situation at hand, whether a downed plane, or a full-on social media attack instigated by a disgruntled customer
  • Is based on core principles that are an integral part of the organization’s culture seen, lived, breathed, exemplified, and put into play through core practices from the CEO to the intern
  • Is fresh, alive, up-to-date, accepted and familiar

 Getting Started

Whether you are just getting started or are reevaluating your current crisis communications plan, there are certain elements that should be considered for a complete and comprehensive program that will strengthen your organization from the inside out. Generally, these elements are a pre-crisis strategy session, pre-crisis plan, crisis processes, crisis manual, crisis training, and updating. For the sake of mapping, we’ll call these your Crisis Management Architecture. In Part 1 of this two-part series we will explore the pre-crisis strategy session and the pre-crisis plan, leaving crisis processes, crisis manual, crisis training, and updating for Part 2.

A.     Pre-Crisis Strategy Session 

The pre-crisis strategy session is a no-holds-barred, roll-up-your-sleeves workshop from which your organization’s strategic and communications leadership should walk out with, at a minimum, a clear understanding of:

  1. The Five Core Operating Principles
  2. Its 360 Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (Yes, SWOT is back but in 3D)
  3. Resources/Assets (from the high-tech to guerrilla)
  4. The types of crises your organization could face
  5. List of hot topics

Most of these are self-explanatory but I will expand upon the first line item as it is central to building the fabric of an organization’s crisis communications safety net.

Five Core Principles:

James Grunig, Professor of Public Relations at the University of Maryland published four principles of crisis communications (Source: The Institute for Public Relations): The Relationship Principle, The Accountability Principle, The Disclosure Principle, and The Symmetrical Communication Principle. I’ve added a fifth principle, The Core Architecture Principle. In detail these are:

1.The Relationship Principle

An organization can withstand both issues and crises better if they have established good, long-term relationships with publics who will be affected from decisions and behaviors of the organization.

Questions to consider:

  • How are you building internal and external relationships?
  • How do you fortify relationships with your customers beyond the sales process?
  • How are your employees building interdepartmental trust relationships with each other outside of happy hour and inside of your organization’s walls?
  • How can you build, strengthen, and deepen internal and external relationships?

2. The Accountability Principle

Organizations should accept responsibility/be accountable for a crisis/issue even if it was not their fault.

Questions to consider:

  • How does your organization work with ownership and accountability?
  • Do you have a culture of standing together and supporting each other or is there a tendency to throw each other “under the bus”?
  • How can your organization build and reward a culture of accountability during the good, the bad, and the ugly?

3. The Disclosure Principle

At the time of a crisis/issue, an organization must disclose all that it knows about the crisis or problem involved. If it does not know what happened, then it must provide full disclosure once it has additional information. Provide facts.

Questions to consider:

  • What are your internal and external communication guidelines?
  • What are your information disclosure parameters?
  • How can you instill a culture of transparency?

4. The Symmetrical Communication Principle

At the time of a crisis, an organization must consider the public interest to be at least as important as its own. Public safety, for example, is at least as important as profits. Therefore the organization has no choice other than to engage in true dialogue with its public/audiences and to practice socially responsible behavior when a crisis occurs [as well as before and after].

Questions to consider:

  • Whose interests do you currently consider of greatest importance?
  • Whose interests should be of greatest importance?
  • How do you engage in true dialogue with your stakeholders?
  • How does your organization communicate internally and externally?
  • What are your corporate communications practices?
  • How can you better and more consistently communicate with your stakeholders?

5. The Core Architecture Principle

An effective crisis communications plan must be based on a solid core architecture that allows for the test of time, change in employees, distance, new participants, new issues, unknown situations, etc.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you have a crisis communications system?
  • Does your current crisis communications system allow you to respond to known issues, as well as unknown issues that may arise?
  • Can it withstand a change of employees/power failure/distance between parties? Most importantly, who’s in charge? If that person is not available, then who makes the decisions not only about what to do but what to communicate to the different audiences and through the different communications vehicles? (This is not as simple as it used to be: think traditional media, the spectrum of social media channels, offline customers, email, mail, corporate website, etc.)

B.     Pre-Crisis Plan 

The Pre-Crisis Plan is meant to create the three-dimensional foundation upon which the crisis communications infrastructure will be built. This plan should identify actions to, at the very least:

  • Communicate core principles
  • Implement core principles through the Five Core Practices and achieve cultural permeation
  • Identify and media-train spokespersons
  • Identify and create a crisis team
  • Set up internal crisis communications cascades
  • Establish threat and crisis thresholds
  • Set up internal and external systems, assets, and technologies needed to efficiently respond and communicate when faced with a potential threat or crisis
  • Attempt to prevent, halt, or diminish threats before they can become a crisis
  • Call for plan and process post-crisis/threat assessment, evaluation, and adjustments as necessary

Stay tuned for Part Two: “Crisis Communications Management (Part 2): The Five Core Practices of Effective Crisis Communications” where we will further explore the Five Core Practices plus the crisis processes, crisis manual, crisis training, and updating.

*A version of this article originally appeared in PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 6.


Authored by Victoria Rossi, CEO and Founder, i-media-international, a NYC-based public relations, digital communications, and social media agency.

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