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How soon do you need to communicate after a crisis?

Sharing a few thoughts on crisis communication – I was working with an executive team on a crisis scenario, when one of the leaders asked a question on crisis communication. He asked, “How soon do we need it to communicate? 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 1 day, …?” He was looking for a precise number to evaluate a few past incidents that were top of mind for everyone in the room. I gave the common answer, but right answer, of “it depends.” He gave a look of dissatisfaction and discrediting posture. I went on to share a few basic statistics from Daniel Diermeier’s research (author of Reputation Rules) such as “online news stories suggest that the typical window is only eight hours; 20% of all news stories on a given issue are published within an eight-hour period; so forth.” Some time has passed since the exercise. After some thought, I want to provide executives with six (6) crisis characteristics to consider when determining when and how to communicate:

  1. Story
  2. Interview
  3. Public
  4. Credibility
  5. Uncertainty
  6. Pace

I made a mnemonic for people … and myself. I came up with sip from cup. It makes it easy to remember the characteristics plus it gives us a good metaphor to work with. Communication is like sipping hot coffee or tea from a cup - be careful not to burn yourself, yet enjoy it while it is hot. Also it is very easy to make bad coffee or tea. Anyone can do it. It is difficult to make an amazing cup that you will talk about for a long time with family, friends, and colleagues.

The first characteristic is story.

The first question to ask - is there a good story here? People who publish, blog, interview, or report need a good story that will sell. Stories help us understand. Stories are our primary way to communicate. According to Stanford University study, 65% of our daily conversations are stories. Attributes of a good story include suspense, unexpected, conflict, closeness, emotional, sex, scandal, immediate, and prominence. [Notice the first part spells success … that is, success for a good story] We need to also consider risk perception. Psychologist Paul Slovic identified ten (10) factors that influence how we assess risk: 1. Dread 2. Control 3. Nature vs. Made-Made 4. Choice 5. Children 6. Novelty 7. Publicity 8. Propinquity 9. Risk-benefit Tradeoff 10. Trust. These are the elements of a good story. If the situation is or has potential for a good story we need to move quickly to shape perception before the audience is influenced. Confirmation bias sets in (like cement) once we make our mind up. It is much harder to change people’s minds once they decided to believe one way or the other.  There are only three actors in a crisis: victim, hero, and villain. Corporations usually take the villain role. It is our job in risk and crisis management to transform the organization into the hero role.

Most reputation studies will show that CEOs (and top executives) rate right above used-car dealers. This means we have low goodwill reserves that can dry up quickly. Writing out how the story can unfold is good practice as it helps leaders imagine the various roles and outcomes. It prepares the mind and maps different ways to get to a desirable ending. Stories and scenarios act as a signal-to-noise filter. It helps us recognize triggers and warning signs. Stories and scenarios change our mental models, our mindset, that allow us to see and pursue different goals, see different cues, prepare for different expectancies, and imagine different courses of actions. Stories and scenarios are wonderful tools to see causality; that is, what factors resulted in what effects. We can use these tools to develop branches and sequels that allow us to have foresight and increase our response time.

The second characteristic is interview.

The second question to ask – could there be interviews. Once people start asking questions we need to have answers or at a statement fast. We recommend using Command and Control [problem solving and decision-making framework] and Strategy Map frameworks to help you prepare communications. Ask yourself four (4) questions: 1. What is the issue? 2. What is your involvement in the issue? 3. Why is it important? 4. What is the historical perspective? Anticipate tough questions and prepare your answers. List the 10 most difficult questions you might be asked regarding the situation and the 10 most difficult questions regarding the company in general. Preparing your mind and thorough understanding of the your position and process is critical. If interviewed remember a few key requirements: be brief, informative, confident, prepared, and take the perspective the members of the community – which is defined by the audience or those that will judge you.

Crisis communication depends on crisis management, not vice versa. Do not let your crisis communication drive your crisis management. Crisis communication is a byproduct of crisis management.

The third characteristic is public.

The third question to ask - how soon and where will or could the story go public? Once a situation [story] goes public we have less control. We need to monitor the volume and intensity of public interest, as well has assess the sediment at time of event. Understanding how the story, situation, enters the public space and the role of the media are important. It will give us insight into origination, amplification, and persistence. If the situation is related to similar issues, we could have a witch-hunt on our hands. Receiving public support from key stakeholders is important, especially influential ones. If we have good customer and business partner relationships, we need to utilize the relationship’s mutuality.

The forth characteristic is credibility and celebrity

The forth question to ask – who is or will be talking about us? Credibility and celebrity is tied directly to story and public. If creditable and/or celebrities are talking about us we need to move fast. If someone famous is talking about us we are now on stage with that person. The source of the information is important. Most people gain whatever knowledge they have of a company by remote observation through the media and their social networks. As David Brooks has wonderfully illustrated in his book Social Animals, we heavily influence by the people around us. We need to gain insight into the social and information cascading effects.

The fifth characteristic is uncertainty.

The fifth question to ask is uncertainty – what don’t we know? It is a good idea to understand what we know and what we don’t know to help define the amount uncertainty on the situation. It also identifies Critical Information Requirements (CIRs), which is a critical input into our threat intelligence process and situation awareness. Uncertainty is a breeding ground for wishful thinking and manipulation. How we position uncertainty in media can give us time.

The sixth characteristic is pace.

The sixth question is pace – how much time do we have? Time is everything – temporal. We need to understand how fast and dynamic the situation is. In finance we look at the burn rate; in crisis communication we look at the information rate. The faster the pace and change the higher rate of inaccuracies and misperceptions. Mica Endsly puts it best when she say “often-critical part of situation awareness is understanding how much time is available until some event occurs or some action must be taken. Operators in many domains filter the parts of the world (or situation) that are of interest to them based not only on space (how far away some element is), but also how soon that element will have an impact on their goals and tasks. The dynamic aspect of the real-world situations is another important temporal aspect of situation awareness. An understanding of the rate at which information is changing allows for projection of future situations.” Mica Endsley has an excellent book on situation awareness. We can draw communication inferences as well have software design from it. At Lootok we use her concepts for crisis and incident management as well has designing our crisis and business continuity management SharePoint portals.

These six (6) characteristics give us insight and direction into the time element of crisis communication. It is important to remind executives that opportunities come with crises. A crisis can give us two wonderful opportunities: 1. change 2. brand equity. Many times a crisis is the only catalyst for change in large organizations. During a crisis situation, leaders can make the necessary changes for the future quickly, efficiently, and with overwhelming support. But we only have a brief moment during and after a crisis to create the change before people go back to their habits or the ways it was done before. The second opportunity is brand equity. A crisis gives us some of the riches soil to cultivate brand equity that we can leverage decades. It is a moment in time that everyone is watching, paying attention, and judging us. If we can come true on our brand, our promise, the market will pay us back in loyalty.

With our clients we use the above six (6) characteristics in a scorecard/continuum to assist leaders in communication timing. The six (6) characteristics litmus scale gives us communication insight and direction. Using a scale approach we can prepare and manage a spectrum of communication situations as well as establish protocols and deliverables. We also incorporate Daniel Diermeier’s trust radar and reputational terrain tools.

Proper crisis communication requires a well-functioning crisis management system that include command and control framework (decision making/problem solving), threat intelligence, situation awareness, critical information requirements, common operating pictures, common ground, and information and knowledge management.

Crisis communication meeting
When should you communicate?