Bushfires, blunders and the bleeding obvious: 6 principles of crisis communications
The politicians’ response to Australia’s bushfires remind us that despite the sophistication of modern media operations our leaders are vulnerable to cocking up communications just when we are relying on them to be on their game.
Communications is one of the Attention Economy’s dark arts. But time and time again, our leaders, who lack no support in this area, fall prey to making some of the most basic communication mistakes.
At Political Central, we saw the usual mixed bag of approaches and communication performances. Some leaders, such as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews understood what was required of him. Others, notably Prime Minister Scott Morrison, were slow to step up to the plate.
That has been well raked over, but it’s worth reiterating six principles of crisis communications.
The tone of messaging in crisis comms is nuanced. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
1. People want information
Facts. What’s happening, where is it happening, what do I need to do? Simple, unadulterated information.
Disseminating this information is easier said than done when you’ve got a catastrophe unfolding across a vast country like Australia, plus an array of authorities and agencies involved. The aim ought to be to coordinate the big messages at a national level, and to deliver those quickly and effectively.
Distributing emergency information is not unlike what firefighters require on the frontline. The fireys need access to water, trucks, hoses and clear roads to get to where they need to be. Similarly, communicators need the right information, equipment and pathways to get their critical messages to citizens.
In emergencies, we want those with the most authoritative information to be able to pump their comms directly and quickly to audiences. (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation and social media have played a life-saving role in this regard.)
2. Leaders must get out front
In times of crisis, we want leaders to be just that. To get out front and to tell us how it is in an unadulterated way. To tell us what we need to know. To be transparent about what they don’t know. To warn us or to reassure us depending on the situation.
It was surprising that some of our politicians failed to weigh the severity of the situation and stuck to their summer plans. And I’m not just talking about the PM.
But what we learn from history is that, well, we don’t learn from history.
>> FREE CHAPTER FROM THE DIY NEWSROOM: Below, read about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Newsrooms, including their inherent readiness in times of crisis.
3. Even amid crisis, there’s time to plan
Unless there’s an incoming missile, you can do more than just react. And if we fail to plan we plan to fail - one of the 7 Titanic Mistakes of Communications.
The bigger the problem the more strategic you need to be.
My advice? Get the smartest people in the war room. But go out of your way to listen to the quietest. In a crisis, you want to lean on those who are the most measured and most sensible. That’s certainly been my experience in newsrooms which are structurally “organised for chaos”.
Being strategic means assessing and agreeing what you’ll say, when you’ll say it and how you’ll say it. Then reviewing this as required - perhaps hourly. At a practical level, someone needs to handle the admin to ensure everyone who needs to know the messaging understands and follows suit. Never assume.
The tone of messaging is a nuanced aspect of crisis communications. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
Even at the highest level in the biggest crisis, it’s really just a simple checklist of the basics, and then decomposing it from there. Of course, much of this work can be done in advance through contingency planning. You’ve done that, huh?
The rightful place for comms professionals in a crisis is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
4. Common sense is not common. Tap the experts.
Just when you need them the most, communications teams can be shut down by leaders who reckon they know better.
I think of Bob Hawke and John Howard as leaders who had an uncanny ability to read the public mood. But they were known to be good listeners and were not arrogant enough to still take on board what the experts around them had to offer.
How often, though, do we see CEOs and leaders go out on their own, or go off script, and it ends up as the predictable train crash?
The boss carries the can and should have the final say. But first they need to understand they have a duty (if only to themselves) to canvass the subject matter experts around them and to evaluate the advice before exercising, hopefully, astute judgement.
Hindsight is generally pretty useless. That said ...
5. When all else fails, there is Comms 2.0
When the boss or your department has stuffed it up right royally, you can still recover some dignity and respect, perhaps even reclaim a political point or two. Apologise. Do it quickly. Make it authentic. Do it on a platform and to an audience that matters. There’s great value in stopping to listen in a crisis too, which can then shape future empathetic communications.
Audiences are willing to forgive even if they won’t forget your epic comms fail. Today, however, comms folk have to accept that haters on social media will keep on hating whatever you do. They’re hardly worth engaging with depending on their influence on your core constituency. Usually, they are just the squeaky wheel and preaching to their own gaggle of grumpsters.
6. Be authentic.
All communications serve to support a greater story. Your media release, social media post or video might have a specific purpose, but when you step back you’ll see that each comms is part of a bigger narrative or context. It’s why authenticity matters, and old-school spin and PR does not work now.
That’s the exciting part of working in communications today because it is far less about sugar-coating the unpalatable and more about real storytelling.
Indeed, with so much at stake in a crisis, the rightful place for communications professionals is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
* Stuart Howie is the executive director of Flame Tree Media, a Canberra-based communications consultancy. Stuart is author of The DIY Newsroom, which was named Social Media and Technology Book of the Year at the 2019 Australian Business Book Awards.
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Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.