Crisis Communication Overcoming Barriers When Crafting an Effective Risk Communication Strategy Research Paper

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Crisis Communication: Overcoming Barriers When Crafting an Effective Risk Communication Strategy

When a disaster strikes, there is no time for planning, and what is already in place must therefore suffice. One of the most important factors to emerge from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the need for more effective communications between the relief agencies, U.S. military and civil law enforcement. Effective communications between these agencies and the people that needed help was clearly required but the implications of this failure were played out in the international media and calls for reform have become increasingly louder in response. To determine what could have been done differently to ensure that effective crisis communications were in place, this study provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed literature to determine the background of the problem and what the experts are advising, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview.

When it comes to crisis communications, there is no room for positive thinking. According to Fearn-Banks (2002), "A crisis can and will happen. 'When?' is the question. Negative thinking is more appropriate than positive thinking in crisis management" (p. 2). The difficult part about ensuring effective communications during periods of crises is the unknowable aspects about what to expect. In this regard, Fearn-Banks defines a crisis as "a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting the organization, company, or industry, as well as its publics, products, services, or good name. A crisis interrupts normal business transactions and can sometimes threaten the existence of the organization" (p. 2). Crises can assume a number of both manmade and artificial forms, including strikes, terrorisms, fires, boycotts, product tampering, product failures, or a wide range of other, comparable events; the size of the enterprise involved is not relevant to the need for crisis planning and management (Fearn-Banks, 2002). "It can be a multinational corporation," this author advises, "a one-person business, or even an individual. By definition, a crisis interrupts the normal flow of business, so a crisis cannot be a normal part of this flow" (p. 2). In reality, the scope of potential crises hat an organization faces is extensive; this is particularly accurate if the definition of an organizational crisis provided by Fink (1986) is followed: "A time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending - either one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome or one with the distinct possibility of a highly desirable and extremely positive outcome. It is usually a fifty-fifty proposition..." (p. 15). All too often, though, people tend to consider crises as disasters or accidents; while these are in fact types of crises, as Dyer (1995) emphasizes, "Crisis is more a matter of organizational response to business situations. Crisis occurs when there is a large, important difference between the expectations that corporate management has about the way its plans will interact with the environment and what actually happens" (p. 38).

In the Age of Information, it would appear superfluous to be overly concerned about the need for effective communications; after all, everyone is wired to everyone else and communications are virtually instantaneous - right? Unfortunately, when disasters strike, one of the first resources to be lost appears to be the communications infrastructure, and things have been getting worse instead of better in recent years for a number of reasons. According to Stone (2003), the need for effective communications during the recent periods of increasing frequency and severity of crises has been made abundantly clear that more needs to be done. "Whether such crises occur in our public schools, governmental agencies, or business enterprises, these crises affect people, property or our environment, and they are matters of major concern" (p. 3). The criticality of crisis-communications management to U.S. businesses in particular is underscored by three salient factors:

The increasing mass media reporting of hazards and their attendant risks;

The phenomenal growth in the number of product-liability lawsuits, particularly since 1975; and,

The pervasive, enormous impact of business crises on more than the reputations and the financial and social status of businesses (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1996).

The convergence of the foregoing factors has created environments in which a number of enterprises have been forced to respond strategically to crises; the communications strategies that have been adopted in response represent a trend wherein companies are perceiving themselves as being more vulnerable to crises today than they were in the past (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1996). Unfortunately, in spite of these trends, an enormous number of companies in the United States still do not have any type of crisis communications plan in place today (Samansky, 2002). In fact, "Even though corporations are more vulnerable to crises than they were in the past, a majority of them are reluctant to adopt integrated crisis management plans" (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995, p. 25).

Overcoming Constraints to Crisis Communications.

While all crises differ in their scope and impact, the impact on organizations is fairly similar and the planning used to prepare for them assumes some comparable forms. According to Fearn-Banks (2002), "Crisis communications is the dialog between the organization and its publics prior to, during, and after the negative occurrence. The strategies and tactics are designed to minimize damage to the image of the organization" (p. 2). In his essay, "Powerful Crisis Communications Lessons PR Lessons Learned from Hurricane Isabel," one public relations firm (2003) reports that their company developed a crisis communications plan that allowed them to effectively respond to a wide-scale outage on the magnitude caused by Hurricane Isabel: "Our plan for responding to a hurricane like Isabel, which was drafted by my colleague Bill Yingling, was mapped to the operational steps that we take to respond to such a natural disaster -- prepare, assess, restore, and analyze" (Brown, 2003, p. 31). The steps that this company followed to facilitate communications during this crisis included:

Preparation phase. During this phase, the company distributed press releases that encouraged customers to prepare for the hurricane, contacted the media, created internal and external alert centers on the intranet and internet sites, and conducted a press conference with the company president to report the steps that had been taken to prepare for the approaching hurricane.

Assessment phase. In this phase, the company responded to numerous media calls, issued a press release explaining the assessment process, began shooting a video documentary, and sponsored a second press conference.

Restoration phase. During the restoration phase, the company responded to a heavy volume of media calls, issued daily press releases updating the media on the company's progress, advised customers where they could obtain dry ice, regularly updated the internal and external web sites, coordinated messaging with the company's call center, and distributed a daily communication to external and internal crews gathering in staging areas.

Analysis phase. During the final phase, the company summarized the various regulatory reports that they had issued, coordinated more than 20 speakers bureau presentations, and participated in department and companywide sessions to identify lessons learned.

In sum, Brown reports that, "Having a plan to guide these activities made our communications more consistent, focused, and effective" (p. 32). This point is also made by Samansky (2002), who emphasizes that while every company's situation is unique, of course, the need to have an effective crisis communications plan in effect before disaster strikes is critically important. This preparedness depends on the following:

Having in place a sound overall, well-thought-out series of actions developed under non-stress conditions;

Flexibility to integrate new ideas and efforts quickly to meet the specific circumstances;

Regular review of existing plans and constant refinement;

Having in place a trained crisis response team; and,

Having in place a well-thought out crisis procedures manual to which staff may refer quickly at the first opportunity (Samansky, 2002, p. 25).

This extensive plan should be:

matter of rote for every member of the crisis response team;

Regularly tested, quietly, at least on a small scale;

Regularly reviewed, at least quarterly, by the head of communications;

Updated immediately for any changes in personnel or circumstances; and,

Made part of the annual personnel performance review process at all levels (Samansky, 2002, p. 25).

The foregoing sounds like a tall order (and it is), but companies that ignore this need do so at their peril. According to Umansky (1993), there are some guiding principles concerning crisis communications that are relevant for almost any situation as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1.

Eight key principles of crisis communications.


Steps to be Followed/Rationale

Centralize the information flow, both inward and outward.

Create a crisis center with special fax and telephone lines so the truth has a place to call home. Use this center as the sole voice speaking your company's messages loud and clear. Make sure all your natural voices -- employees, suppliers, friends -- have the official materials they need to support you. They already have the rumors.

Develop a crisis team and empower it.

Isolate a multidisciplinary task force from your daily operations.…

Sources Used in Document:


Brown, T.S. (2003). Powerful crisis communications lessons: PR lessons learned from Hurricane Isabel. Public Relations Quarterly, 48(4), 31.

Duhe, S.F. (2005). The sources behind the first days of the anthrax attacks: What can practitioners learn? Public Relations Quarterly, 50(1), 7.

Dyer, S.C. (1995). Getting people into the crisis communication plan. Public Relations Quarterly, 40(3), 38.

Fearn-Banks, K. (2002). Crisis communications: A casebook approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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