Effective Crisis Communications: The Silver Lining in Disaster Response Management

September 11, 2001, the United States of America (USA) and the world at large would be changed forever by this catastrophic event, which claimed the lives of 2,977 individuals.  While a plethora of media outlets raced to report on every single detail of this gruesome tragedy, internal communicators were scrambling to ensure that accurate information was disseminated to media houses, key stakeholders and the general public at large.

According to an article by the Harvard Business Review entitled, ‘Crisis Communication: Lessons from 9/11’, “In a time of extreme crisis, internal communications take precedence.  Before any other constructive action can take place, the morale of employees must be rebuilt.”  Therefore, crisis communications strategies must be developed on the premise that employees are the executors of any policies or actions decided upon by the organisation, in response to a crisis.  Accordingly, a robust internal communications plan should be designed in conjunction with the overall crisis communications plan.

In the Caribbean region, many organisations are faced with the task of disaster response management in the aftermath of a tropical cyclone.  While the events of 9/11 required more of a macro communications output, there are definite crossovers in the realm of crisis communications between the two (2) realities.  The following are critical to observe as part of any credible crisis communications strategy, whether in response to a minor or major disaster response effort:

  1. Get on the Scene: During a crisis, efficient managers maintain a high level of visibility on the ground, particularly at the scene of the disaster. For example, a top management official may hold a press conference at the vicinity of the disaster.  This  is because the sound of an empathetic voice communicates sincerity, which cannot be detected from a written statement.
  2. Choose your Channels Carefully: During and after a natural or man-made disaster, several communication mediums may be destroyed, such as phone lines, power lines and computer networks. It is important to develop relationships with key media houses, as company communications systems may fail and therefore, critical messages may not be released in a timely manner.
  3. Refer to the Relevant Experts as Needed: In the haste to provide information to audiences in a timely manner, organisations may overstep their jurisdiction in providing and explaining information on complex subject matters.  It is important to refer to the experts in disseminating critical information to audiences, thereby building credibility and avoiding misinformation which could further damage the company’s reputation.
  4. Incorporate flexibility into Crisis Plans: In disaster response management, the situation is often quite fluid and a crisis communications plan which was successfully executed yesterday, may no longer be appropriate tomorrow. Therefore, it is essential that such plans be designed in a manner which allows for management’s discretion and ability to adapt to the circumstances of the situation in a timely manner.
  5. Get the Right Message Across: While reporting on disaster facts and response effort details are vital components of crisis communications, the core message needs to be tailored and delivered in a manner which is sensitive to all races, gender, ethnicities, religious beliefs and income levels. Additionally, the company’s post-disaster response should reveal a culture of equality, diversity, equity and inclusion.  The companies which are most successful in crisis communications management, are more often those which are perceived by their audiences as fair and unbiased towards all their internal and external stakeholders.

Effective crisis communication has once again demonstrated its grave significance as part of a company’s overall operations strategy.  In light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, organisations throughout the Caribbean region have had to respond to multiple disasters as the hurricane season progresses.  Nonetheless, the uncertainties which disasters present to organisations and individuals alike can be successfully mitigated through the development and execution of a solid crisis communications plan.  For this reason, effective crisis communication is the silver lining in disaster response management.

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