I was working with an executive team on a crisis scenario, when one of the leaders asked a question about crisis communication: “How soon do we need to communicate? Five 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 — and correct — answer: “It depends.” He gave a look of dissatisfaction with a 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 8 hours”, “20% of all news stories on a given issue are published within an 8-hour period”, so forth. Some time has passed since the exercise. After giving it some thought, I came up with six crisis characteristics to consider when determining when and how to communicate:
- incertainty; and
I came up with a mnemonic for people (and myself!) to make it easy to remember: “SIP from CUP”. It also 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’s hot. Also, it’s very easy to make bad coffee or tea. Anyone can do it. It’s difficult to make an amazing cup that you will talk about for a long time with family, friends, and colleagues.
The first question to ask: Is there a good story here? Stories help us understand. Stories are our primary way to communicate. People who publish, blog, interview, or report need a good story that will sell. Attributes of a good story include suspense, surprise, conflict, closeness, emotion, sex, scandal, immediacy and prominence. According to a Stanford University study, 65% of our daily conversations are stories. We need to consider story in risk perception. Psychologist Paul Slovic identified 10 factors that influence how we assess risk:
- nature vs man-made;
- risk-benefit trade-off; and
These are also 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, because there are only three actors in a crisis: victim, hero and villain. Corporations usually end up in the villain role. Our job in risk and crisis management is to transform the organisation into the hero before confirmation bias sets in like cement. It’s much harder to change people’s minds once they decide to believe one way or the other.
Story is my favourite element. It drives the potential for interview and publicity. In a potential or actual crisis situation, write and map out the crisis story with varying endings. Get creative as you identify all the actors, roles and settings. Understand the tempo and twists. Give it structure and overlay it with the organisation’s risk/crisis management. The process will help you make sense of the situation as well as sharpening your messaging.
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 recognise triggers and warning signs. Stories and scenarios change our mental models — our mindset that allows us to see and pursue different goals, see different cues, prepare for different expectancies, and imagine different courses of action. 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 question to ask: Could there be interviews? Once people start asking questions, we need to have answers or at least a statement, and fast. We recommend using Command and Control (problem-solving and decision-making framework) and Strategy Map frameworks to help you prepare communications.
- What is the issue?
- What is your involvement in the issue?
- Why is it important?
- What is the historical perspective? If you’re being interviewed, remember a few key requirements:
- be brief;
- be informative;
- be confident;
- be prepared; and
- take the perspective of the members of the community — which is defined by the audience or those who will judge you.
An interview is judgment day, and you are being judged both by people who care about you and people who want to take you down. Everyone is watching and judging. Preparing for judgment day requires skill, practice, and a system in place to facilitate the process. It’s not something you figure out at the time of event.
Anticipate tough questions and prepare — 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 gathering a thorough understanding of your position and process is critical. It will bring clarity to the situation, get at the root of the problem, and help you understand the audiences. It helps formulate the story.
I love this line from Eric Dezenhall, author of Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal, on interviews:1
A live interview, however, isn’t theory: It’s theater designed to stone a cultural witch. Force of personality alone won’t beat back the one-two punch to the jaw in the form of Matt Lauer and a signed waiver.
Congressional hearings are reputational lynchings, not true legal forums or informational exchanges. They are opportunities for Congress to scold targets, not for those on the hot seat to articulate zinging comebacks, which only serve to make targets look like smart-asses in the need of comeuppance.
Crisis communication depends on crisis management, not vice versa. Do not let your crisis communication drive your crisis management. Crisis communication is a by-product of crisis management.
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 as assess the sediment at the time of event. Understanding how the story (situation) enters the public space and the role of the media are important. It gives us insight into origination, amplification and persistence. If the situation is related to sensitive issues, we could have a witch-hunt on our hands. Public support from key stakeholders is important, especially the influential ones. If we have good customer and business partner relationships, we need to utilise these relationships’ mutuality.
Credibility and celebrity
The fourth question to ask: Who will be talking about us? Credibility and celebrity is tied directly to story and public. If a creditable source and/or celebrity is talking about us, we need to move fast — we’re 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 wonderfully illustrated in his book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement2 , we’re heavily influenced by the people around us. We need to gain insight into social and information cascading effects.
The fifth question to ask: What don’t we know? It’s important to understand what we know and what we don’t know to help define the amount of uncertainty on the situation. It also identifies critical information requirements (CIRs), which are vital 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 question to ask: How much time do we have? Time is everything. 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 the rate of inaccuracies and misperceptions. Mica Endsley said in her article:3
A[n] [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.
She has an excellent book on situation awareness, by the way. We can draw everything from communication inferences to software design from it.
Proper crisis communication requires a well- functioning crisis management system that includes 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.Sean Murphy
CEO and President
Note: Originally published in Risk Management Today, October 2016, Volume 26 No 8.
 E Dezenhall Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal Grand Central Publishing, 2014.
 D Brooks The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement Random House Publishing Group, 2011.
 M Endsley “Theoretical underpinnings of situation awareness: a critical review” (January 2000), p 4 available at www.researchgate.net/publication/230745477_Theoretical_underpinnings_of_situation_awareness_A_critical_review.