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Communicating in a crisis: A risk management issue?
David Gregory Received (in revised form): 6th October, 2008
Safer Business Associates Ltd., 1 Byﬁeld Road, Papworth Everard, Cambridge CB23 3UQ, UK Tel: 44 (0)1480 839880; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Gregory was the Business Continuity Manager for City University, London and Chair of the Higher Education Business Continuity Network until October, 2007. Previously, he was Emergency Planning and Business Continuity Manager for Cambridgeshire County Council. He has a postgraduate diploma in business continuity management as well as certiﬁcates in emergency planning, media management and risk management. David’s main professional interest is business continuity and he is widely recognised as an expert in this ﬁeld. He has developed and delivered numerous business continuity and emergency management exercises, provided training sessions for many organisations. David runs his training and consultancy company, Safer Business Associates Ltd.
to the importance of media and external communications as part of an overall communications plan. Reference is made to the report following the Virginia Tech disaster in 2007 and the problems associated with communications in a university environment. The paper aims to provide the reader with a clearer understanding of some of the reasons why communications often fail in an incident and suggests some ways in which things may be improved in the future. Keywords: communications, Virginia Tech, internal communications, external communications, risk
ABSTRACT This paper argues that most post-exercise or incident debriefs suggest that communications could have been better. It explores some of the difﬁculties of communicating in a crisis and suggests that if organisational culture does not allow for good communications in ‘peacetime’, then they are unlikely to be any better in a crisis situation. It is therefore suggested that crisis communications should be treated as a risk management issue and given a place on the corporate risk register so that the issue can be managed through an appropriate risk management action plan. The paper mainly focuses on internal communications although it also refers
In debriefs following almost every exercise or real event it is nearly always reported that communications could have been better. This normally includes concern over the effectiveness of both internal and external communications. In its most basic form, communication simply involves the passing of information from one person or group to another. Yet within society and the working environment there are deep-rooted complexities which mean that effective communication, particularly in a crisis, remains a constant challenge, even with the assistance of emerging and developing technology. This paper explores some of the difﬁculties associated with communicating in
Journal of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 31–37 Henry Stewart Publications, 1749-9216
communications in a crisis reﬂect the overall organisational culture. Smallman. In the case of the latter. The irony is that if communications are not appropriate to the company response or the situation in which it ﬁnds itself. starts well before an event. In such instances. In a crisis. Page 32 . like all good business continuity planning. history is littered with examples of organisations that have been severely damaged by a poorly managed reputational issue. if communications are not normally good in an organisation — or between the various parts of an organisation — then why would they be any better during an emergency response? In an environment where a blame culture appears to be increasingly prevalent. The way that communications are managed (particularly during a crisis) will directly affect the perception that the public. This may be for very legitimate business reasons associated with the need to continue operating. states that ‘attaching blame or sanctioning individuals it seems is a recipe for instilling silence’. it is not unusual to see an organisation close ranks and focus on managing the emergency. This could ultimately affect the organisation’s long-term wellbeing. consist of a number of campuses and faculties which may be several miles apart. may be misplaced as they can often be treated as an extension to the overall brand marketing campaign. there may be an aversion to sharing bad news in a crisis due to a feeling of fear. if they do take place. In addition. Preparation for effective communications. failures in communications can make or break an organisation’s reputation. consistent and demonstrate genuine empathy rather than a guarded press release are the key to turning a negative situation into a positive one. employees and other stakeholders will have of the responding agency. In short. good external crisis communications that are truthful. If senior management within organisations ensures that good internal communications are both practised and preached then the challenge becomes that much easier.1 If this trend continues. the examples given could equally apply to any organisation or multinational company. In these situations. for example. then it will be irrelevant whether this perception in any way reﬂects reality. In this situation. many will have differing and longstanding processes and procedures in place.Communicating in a crisis: A risk management issue? a crisis and suggests some of the possible root causes for this. Many universities. Indeed. While the focus will be largely upon the university sector. Part of this should involve encouraging managers to adopt a supportive and open organisational culture so that the wheels of communications are well oiled. information may be stiﬂed because people are generally disinclined to communicate for fear of being blamed or used as a scapegoat. In many large organisations it is not unusual to encounter what might be described as a ‘silo mentality’. gossip and innuendo will almost certainly follow. If communication is poor during a crisis then uncertainty. insecurity and doubt. where departments or sections of the organisation do not communicate effectively on a day-today basis. Rumour. insecurity and a lack of direction can result. Very often however. Communications. Poor internal and external communication can carry with it signiﬁcant risks. There is often a drive to limit the physical impact of the incident and to recover from it as quickly as possible. even daily communications can become a major challenge. for example. then it may become increasingly difﬁcult to achieve an effective communications strategy as there will be an impact on both content and delivery.
When an incident does occur then both internal and external communications can be stretched to the limit. When it came to the incident. as in most cases it is well within the organisation’s control to reduce the overall risk proﬁle — a very tangible beneﬁt. The report also concluded that the process for sending an emergency message was ‘cumbersome. which resulted in messages going out that were inappropriate to the ongoing situation. • there were no preset messages in place for different types of emergency. in some situations good organisational communications may help a key person become aware of a developing pattern and thereby prevent an incident from occurring. many crises seem to be a surprise. The Page 33 . This raises the question as to whether policies for screening communications materials under normal circumstances should be relaxed in the event of an emergency incident. In March 2006. In addition. spouses. a number of assumptions were made with regard to the ongoing situation. Ultimately.Gregory With this in place. one of the greatest tragedies to befall any organisation happened at Virginia Tech University in the USA. In this way it can be assigned an appropriate risk management action plan. Good communications may not only help in the management of a crisis but in some cases may help to avert one. they did not have the technical means to do so as the relevant codes to enable this resided with others within the organisation. However. in heat of the moment. This makes a great deal of sense. The report that followed this desperately tragic incident said that in the lead-up to the event ‘the lack of information sharing among academic. it was said that: • there was no one effective system in place to communicate quickly with the large groups of people involved. faculty students and staff scrambled for information that would conﬁrm that their loved ones. and public safety entities at Virginia Tech.6 In addition to this. untimely and problematic’. contributed to a failure to see the big picture’. the report concluded that ‘the timing and content of the messages given out on the day represented one of the major controversies of the overall response’. administrative. Of course it is often easier to identify warning signs in retrospect. the timing and content of messages were decided with the chief of (campus) police in consultation with a policy group. • communications from the classrooms were not possible as there were no phones in them. This is a difﬁcult balance given that.2 In effect ‘no one (within the organisation) effectively joined up all of the dots’.4 For example. This led to a number of incorrect conclusions regarding the developing scenario. it was reported that while the Virginia Tech police had the authority to send a message.3 It could therefore be argued that poor overall communications should be identiﬁed as an organisational risk and included in the company risk register. At the time that they happen. and the students who had raised concerns.5 One effect of this was that ‘Parents. the need to communicate in a timely manner is countered by the absolute requirement not to make things worse. This was further highlighted in the report following the Virginia Tech massacre. friends or colleagues were safe’. work can be done to ensure that communications in a crisis are robust and joined up. if this has not been done already. However. the reports or investigations that follow often highlight a number of seemingly unconnected events leading up to the emergency.
once a group of people are in a room (such as a classroom) they are a potentially ‘captive audience’ with limited means of escape. Thus. Further. However. the Virginia Tech report describes students escaping by any means possible. it would be unlikely that a similar imposition could be applied to students. This may be even more difﬁcult in a university setting or within the educational sector. lecturers and students is encouraged. it is very difﬁcult to be sure what message to give out in the early stages. for example. many of whom are living away from their families for the ﬁrst time.Communicating in a crisis: A risk management issue? point is that in many cases it is difﬁcult for the responding organisation to ensure that the message given out is appropriate to the unfolding events. understand and action the message simultaneously. In a university setting. for example.7 In a crisis. centralized point of information at the outset resulted in mass confusion and a communications nightmare that remained unabated throughout the week following the shootings’. There are students in halls of residence and private rented accommodation. is a ﬁne balance. it could be suggested that a university presents the practitioner with a communications nightmare. including jumping from ﬁrst ﬂoor windows. Populations within universities are highly transient and change regularly as students come and go. locking down would represent a huge communications challenge in that all parties on the site would need to receive. In most cases. In many ways. legal challenge or be used in any subsequent public or other inquiry. For example. there was a lot of discussion around the possibility of sending a message to lock down the campus to try to keep people safe within the buildings. At City University. If even a small number of people within the organisation did not receive or understand this message then the subsequent confusion could exacerbate the situation. In the aftermath of Virginia Tech. This means that any message given out has to be sympathetic to the fact that differing cultures may hear or translate a message differently. It is fair to say that an event on the scale of Virginia Tech would have been likely to overwhelm any organisation. In addition. Indeed. this may risk putting people in even more danger. students attend from around 150 countries. Anything said that is based on assumptions or halftruths will almost certainly lead to reputational harm. as was demonstrated in the Columbine High School massacre. the report concluded that ‘the sheer magnitude of the immediate impact coupled with the failure to establish an organized. the initial internal message would likely be to evacuate the building. Externally. There are a growing number of overseas students coming to the UK to study. Any message must therefore be as clear and simple as possible so that any translations are unambiguous. Many organisations have open campuses where members of the public as well as the students have a licence to roam. In reality. which is often fulﬁlling the roles of both victim and responder. any information given out must be based on known facts at the time of the communication. while it may be realistic to instruct staff not to talk to the media. and when to give it. knowing what message to give out both internally and externally to the media and others. within the university setting it is unlikely that a one-size-ﬁts-all Page 34 . Universities pride themselves on being open environments where freedom of speech and expression from academics. All of these are considerable issues and indeed communication in an emergency with the diverse and disparate groups of people at universities remains a major challenge.
if it is to be truly meaningful. There is. He qualiﬁed this by suggesting that in each case one needs to continue to feed it and that under no circumstances should it ever be let go. of course. Here it is the very positive and proactive approach that should be seen as the real example of good practice. text-messaging systems. the best solution would likely be an institution-wide strategy that encompassed a joined-up approach using a variety of media. phone. • assemble a crisis communication team. In this case they have taken and applied the ‘golden hour’ rule to great effect. should have an element of daily or at least regular application. In general. loud-hailer. in a joined-up approach. This will need to be coupled with a number of communications methods. the best plans will include strategies for the delivery of this together with good external communications and media management. • designate an appropriate primary spokesperson. • determine the most effective means of communication. A colleague once remarked that good media management is like ‘holding a tiger by the tail’. any systems used. While this paper has focused predominantly on internal communications. sirens. In the UK. An example of this is offered below. any communications strategy should include both sides of the coin.8 it would aim to: • factually assess the situation. This procedure would be followed in the event of an incident taking place or in a situation where a ‘potential issue crisis’ or creeping crisis is judged to be developing. This will help the user to develop a degree of familiarity so that they are not learning to use the system or trying to remember how it works at the time of the crisis. there is a need to encourage collective responsibility so that communications can be conﬁrmed and distributed rapidly. ﬁre alarms. Rather. minimise rumours and restore order and conﬁdence. Page 35 . noticeboards and face-to-face communications. and where possible. and • implement immediate actions to identify those who should be informed. when the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) was affected by ﬂoods in 2007. It is therefore important for the management action plan to analyse the needs of the organisation and its people so that a communications strategy can be developed in line with those needs. a risk that if the message receiver is accustomed to receiving communications in this way they could become complacent and ignore it at the vital time. it made a point of contacting all 400 of its staff and setting up an emergency phone message. honest and transparent approach. Each of these has its own pros and cons and in some cases will not always be practical or cost-effective.Gregory communications solution would be ﬁt for purpose. Factors such as this would ultimately determine the success of any internal and external communications strategy. Communications systems applied may include the use of websites. communicate facts about the crisis. e-mail. The University of Minnesota’s communication plan aims to ensure that the organisation is in a position to give a ‘credible public response within one hour after awareness of any incident’ or ‘potential issue crisis that may lead to a story that damages the University’s reputation’. Developing this approach requires the organisation to adopt an open. such as text messaging for example. Thus. In addition. To enable this. Such a risk will need to be factored into the overall equation. in the event of an incident (as deﬁned by its emergency response plan).
This would also allow for the funnelling of information and aid with information management. these may include areas such as the student information centre. Alternatively. • by enabling it to better communicate in the event of an emergency incident. Of course. those involved in the response. a strategy would sensibly include a process for getting a message to where people within the organisation tend to congregate in normal circumstances. which is why it is important to have as many methods of communications built into the strategy as possible. no one system is foolproof. any media plan should seek to address both media response and management. Giving information to those affected by the incident can help to remove the feeling of helplessness and loss of control that people often feel. people will gravitate towards these areas. In a university setting. Simple solutions can very often be the most effective — for example. In a university or multinational organisation. common room or student union. In a culture where pointing the ﬁnger Page 36 . If this is in any way missing from an organisation then it should be included on the corporate risk register and assigned a management action plan with a view to reducing the risk proﬁle. The tragic incident that affected the people associated with Virginia Tech provides a very real example of the need to ensure that communications are appropriate and robust both in the build-up to a crisis and then during it. In a crisis it is likely that. ‘two-way’ information management becomes a factor that may determine success or failure. which could ultimately lead to a reduction in speculation and rumour. Of course. one can use people to talk to people. Importantly. The responder should at all times ensure that any statements they are making can dovetail into any being made by the emergency services or other responders. those with a stakeholder interest and the wider community. this would help ensure that the appropriate actions and responses are taken according to the developing scenario. This should be coupled with a structure for getting key messages to interested parties using a management structure that enables messages to be authorised and distributed quickly. this can help reduce the feelings of insecurity and doubt. Messages from a responder should be driven to fulﬁl the needs of people directly or indirectly affected. Hence. During an incident. one should not forget the human element. When looking at external communications. the wider community may include people on a global scale.Communicating in a crisis: A risk management issue? Following the needs analysis. In turn. A system with a single point of information to aid two-way communication with all those affected by the emergency should be implemented. this should consider the needs of the people with which the organisation wishes to communicate. In conclusion. a staff room or other common area would be appropriate. and. where employees are involved. the aim should be to develop an internal and external communications plan to include as many of the above systems as appropriate. any communications strategy should be based on a cost-beneﬁt analysis. In turn. Most importantly. Not all communications media need to be costly or high-tech. This would beneﬁt the organisation in two ways: • by equipping it to better identify an impending crisis and therefore avert it. as long as there is access to the building. a good communications strategy is a vital element of an overall emergency response.
139. p. 2008). available at http://www. February. Smith. p. 16. 52. 2.edu/images/pdf/ emerg_plan0205. Ibid. D. If good communications are part of good management practice. E. REFERENCES (1) Coles.governor.. then this can only help in the most difﬁcult and challenging of circumstances. it is vital for the culture of organisations to allow for open and proactive communications on a day-to-day basis. (2) Virginia Tech Review Panel (2007) ‘Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech April (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) 16.. 2007.Gregory of blame is becoming the norm. p.. p. Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (2005) ‘Emergency Response Plan Winoa Campus Saint Teresa Campus’. 17.pdf (accessed 6th October. virginia. S. (2001) Risk Management and Society. p. p.pdf Page 37 . Ibid. Ibid. 136. Ibid. and Tombs. p.. Report of the Review Panel Presented to Governor Kaine Commonwealth of Virginia’. available at http://www.gov/TempContent/techPanel Report-docs/FullReport.... Ibid.smumn. 66. August. Dordrecht. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
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