Crisis Communications Basics

Coronavirus panic

Here’s a reminder of crisis communications basics for those many organizations and individuals not supported by professionals in the field. Covid-19 is certainly creating a firestorm of fear and even panic in places requiring skillful communications between organizations and those they serve, protect, employee, and must respond to.

The following are a few basics that I learned from my past 30 years work as a Director in the Operations Strategy Branch of the RCMP, as a national change and crisis management consultant, and teaching the topic.

  1.  A crisis is a fast-moving event. It often has incomplete information and false and rapidly-changing information.
  2. What worked before or even last week may not work again. Nothing is ever exactly the same due to the chaotic intervention of dozens of changing variables.
  3. Know who are trusted sources. These are generally medical health professionals and scientists speaking directly to you through various communication channels. Not your aunt Sally, the latest blog, or your neighbor who you may trust on other levels of existence.
  4. Be prepared for rising levels of fear. I define fear as a sense of powelessness and the unknown. As events rapidly change due to the shifting sands of reality there will be accusations of inconsistency in messages or even outright lying. Us humans crave certainly and consistency and predictability. A crisis by definition brings the opposite. Explaining to others what emotions and reactions are expected during a crisis may help people understand that what they are feeling is a natural recurrent pattern. That what they know today are the facts. But those facts will change and when they do the will be quickly communicated and explained.
  5. Crises with swirling waters of change bring all manner of speculation to fill our void of unknown. Because we need certainty we readily accept crazy theories that sound logical and rumors with no standing in fact but feel comfortable to our need for power and knowledge. Such devils of anxiety and fear need to be immediately corrected.
  6. During a crisis even the most uninformed layperson will have “logical” answers. “Why don’t we just (fill in the blank).” Fear spurs us to find solutions. Even when they make no sense.
  7. Remember that facts, statistics, and logic do not do well in overriding raw fear. Our brain’s amygdala is designed to short-circuit all other passageways to protect us from death and injury by immediately triggering us to fight, flight, or freeze bypassing our thoughtful neocortex. This means that technical and accurate communication about disease, death, and scary viruses must be presented in simple and personally-relevant language. And repeated often, calmly, and credibly.
  8. Know your target audiences. Many can be affected by a crisis. Every one of those audiences is hungry for the facts but likely wants slightly or greatly different facts. There is no such thing as a “general population” needing just one over-arching message. Think about specific suppliers, customers, clients, students, different professions, gender, age, education levels, ethnicity, cultures, and languages. Each may required a tailored message for their needs. But at the same time you must have overall consistency in your general theme. Washing hands is washing hands but greetings and social interactions vary among cultures.
  9. As you deal with a crisis expect at some point finger-pointing and accusations of blame. An action and response that happened today is not the same as tomorrow brings. Events are moving faster than our ability to perfectly understand and respond. Again our human tendency is to find a villian, any villian, in a crisis. This helps us make sense of things. Also assigning blame to others in a crisis can sometimes insulate own own inadequacy or wrongdoing.
  10. And finally, remember the old adage that “perfection is the enemy of good.” In a crisis it is unlikely we will see “perfect” solutions and action. In many cases we will have to settle for “good enough.” As we say in crisis management, sometimes “a tie is a win.”


One thought on “Crisis Communications Basics

  1. Tl;dr – The stupid virus may be unstoppable because the novelty or the sense of fear can wear off in the long run. Is it possible to implement long term changes on such large scale without the fear?

    One of the more probable ways that this pandemic can end is the virus running its course through the masses until “herd immunity” is developed. This was the opinion of a doctor in India who also fears that the outbreak is impossible to contain.

    What stuck with me from that conversation was the idea of the novelty wearing off. In time, people might get tired with the extremely impractical measures such as lockdown of the entire country. They might even lose the sense of fear, because of implementation of long term measures to protect against the virus. These long term measures or changes in daily life and work will, in turn, lose their effectiveness because is is difficult to go the extra mile without the fear or urgency.

    From a change management perspective, can such utter failure be avoided on a global scale?


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