An educational institution may face a difficult situation when question papers get leaked. Similarly, organizations face a crisis when the top management team resigns or there is a major fraud or embezzlement or there is a loss of big market or a threat of a takeover or a major loss of reputation owing to a scandal or regulatory action. Such situations call for immediate action and any kind of procrastination or delay in responding would only worsen the situation. As we have noted earlier, every business has its stakeholders—employees, customers, shareholders and community. These stakeholders contribute to the growth and progress of any organization.
Their continued support is very essential for the organization to survive and thrive. Any organization that is in a crisis situation should take speedy steps to allay the concerns or apprehensions of its stakeholders. The grapevine or the rumour mill works fast during a crisis situation.
Bad news spreads fast. Information emanating from one source is passed to the other, and often this is done without verifying the veracity or correctness of the message. People may pass on incorrect or exaggerated or damaging information knowingly or unknowingly.
Sometimes, vested interests may take undue advantage and feed rumours. All this can be prevented if the organization acts fast and puts in place crisis management and communication strategy. Crisis management refers to the practice of dealing with crisis as they arise and not to any long-term strategic planning. It means that crises have to be dealt with as and when they happen. Communication in a crisis should reach out to the employees, customers and other stakeholders and it should reveal the truth. People who are in a position to support the organization in the hour of crisis should be taken into confidence. They are also quite eager to know the factual position.
Top management of the organization should form teams and reach out to employees, customers and others through different channels. Apart from writing letters to them, group meetings and interactions should be organized. Larger organizations need to reach out through print and electronic media. As far as possible, the chief executive and other senior- level functionaries will have to meet people and send out messages. Routine messages and handouts coming from junior-level functionaries may not have the desired impact. In any crisis situation, people concerned need reassurances from people in authority. Face-to-face talks help in clarifying doubts and misunderstandings and allaying fears and misapprehensions, which are essential to contain the damage and overcome the crisis. If the CEO or top management personnel avoid meeting or addressing the staff or important customers, the situation would only get worse.
If no authentic information about the developments comes forth from the people in the top management, people tend to go by rumours and make their own deductions. Another important requirement in a crisis situation is to ensure that there are no contradictory statements, and management personnel do not speak in different voices. In order to achieve credibility, they should speak out honesty and truthfully. If required, they should all read out a prepared text and provide sincere clarifications. Sketchy and inconsistent utterances would do more harm than good. Quite often crisis-related communication will have to be done more often than once. Sharing of information may have to be done frequently as and when more details come to light.
Throughout the process, however, there should be consistency, a tone of sincerity and no attempt to conceal facts. Apart from verbal communication, non-verbal communication too assumes significance in any crisis. People would be closely observing and interpreting the body language of the top management giving out information. Stress, anxiety, anger, impatience and such other negative signals would be closely noticed and interpreted. Similarly sincerity, confidence, unity and such other positive signals certainly reinforce the verbal communication. If the speaker is very disturbed or shaky as he/she conveys that everything is under control, people will see the contradiction and the verbal message may get discounted. Besides verbal and non-verbal communication, actions are also important in conveying the right message. As we have noticed earlier, actions speak louder than words.
The management should act fast and decisively to scotch rumours and restore confidence. For example, if there is a run on the bank and people start queuing up to withdraw money, the bank management should reinforce cash balances, open more counters and extend timings to ensure that all withdrawals are permitted. Such an action will reassure the depositors more than mere statements.
Similarly, if there is a rumour that a top-level functionary has resigned, the management should arrange a media interaction by that functionary denying the rumours. As all this indicates that in order to cope with any crisis, an organization needs to plan in advance and put in place a crisis management strategy. In fact, such a strategy should be articulated in the communication policy of the organization.
It should state clearly who will have the authority to communicate with stakeholders in a crisis. Communicating and interacting with employees and customers assumes considerable significance in any crisis situation. Not only that, the persons so authorized to communicate should also have direct access to information so that he/she can provide proper and adequate information. Truthfulness and transparency does not necessarily mean that every bit of detail should be provided to everybody at the same time. Information should be provided on a need-based basis and may be in measured doses.
Although crisis situations cannot be predicted or always foreseen, there can always be a sense of preparedness in dealing with such situations. Large organizations also need to contend with media in dealing with any crisis. Public is one of the stakeholders for such organizations, and media is understandably quite keen in covering such information for the benefit of the public. Apart from the print media, electronic media would show keen interest in breaking the crisis news.
Organizations, in their own interest, need to communicate effectively with the media. In a crisis, media can work both ways. If handled properly, media can reinforce the message the organization wants to convey, reach out to a larger section of the community with factual details and help in overcoming the crisis. On the other hand, if the media is mishandled or information is denied, the media can put together a story, which may not be factually correct and make things worse for the organization.
Communication in a crisis is thus a very challenging task. Any crisis, if not properly handled, can result in damaging the image or reputation of the business. Such an image loss can even result in causing irreparable damage to the functioning of the organization. Crisis situations have certain sensitivity and hence, apart from ensuring adequate planning and preparedness, organizations have to keep their communication channels alert and highly responsive during times of crisis.
While the occurrence of the crisis cannot be foreseen and prevented, with concerted actions the damage can be contained and the crisis overcome.