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5 key principles for effective crisis communication – lessons from C19 and beyond

23 September 2020

Guest post by Ben Verinder, Director, Chalkstream

I been supporting colleges, in one form or another, with crisis communication for over sixteen years. This includes working on fraud investigations, insolvencies, fires, homicides, unsuccessful inspections, litigation, planning controversies, mergers, acquisitions and a lot more besides.

Below I have set out five principles for effective crisis communication that those cases have taught me.

  • Effective risk and issues management can help mitigate against the effects of the unpredictable

Many incidents I have dealt with could have been avoided by improved risk or issues management.

While no institution could have stopped Covid-19 from growing from a risk into an issue (and then into a public difficulty), risk and issues management has helped institutions mitigate against some of the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Colleges further along the road in terms of online or blended learning have typically found it easier to meet the delivery demands of the pandemic.

Those with robust, adopted customer relationship management systems have found employer engagement less challenging.

Those with well-developed digital channels and an effective SEO strategy have had a head-start in terms of student recruitment.

These were all issues that colleges should have addressed independently of and prior to Covid-19.

  • Communication will not solve an operational crisis

A failure in performance, behaviour or identity cannot be fixed by communication.

As NYU Professor John Doorley says: “If communication did not cause the problem, it cannot fix it.”

  • But it can make it a lot worse

When a public difficulty hits, how an institution communicates is often the difference between mitigation and exacerbation.

We can all recall examples of organisations that made matters worse by communicating poorly when faced with an issue or crisis, including BP to Oxfam, United Airlines to Thomson Holiday. And those where effective communication has helped to restore trust and reputation and set the organisation on the road to recovery, such as Virgin Train’s response to the Cumbrian rail crash or Johnson and Johnson’s recall of tampered Tylenol bottles.

  • Poor relationship management can lead to existential threats

In the context of a college, poor crisis communication can risk allowing a false version of the organisation to become the reality in the minds of people who matter.

It risks exposing staff and students to reputational damage and sometimes, where emergency communication is inadequate, to physical harm.

It can lead to regulatory intervention that, for the college, its students and the taxpayer would be best avoided.

It can poison partnerships and sour sponsorship deals.

In the longer term the impact on reputation can have such an effect on staff recruitment, and the quality of both teaching and stakeholder relationships, that the organisation faces an existential threat.

Which is why it is so important to get it right.

  • Getting it right requires foresight and planning

Crisis communication planning is sometimes compared to buying insurance – a ‘distress purchase,’ that is nevertheless essential. Covid-19 has illustrated that an attitude of ‘we don’t need to plan because it won’t happen here’ ill-serves any organisation.

In the past few months colleges will no doubt have updated their crisis communication planning or created new drafts from scratch – but all plans can be improved.

Effective crisis communication requires accurate evaluation of the operating context, of stakeholder relationships and the communication channels dictated by that analysis.

It involves selecting the right strategy, tactics and messaging – in the case of Covid-19 that is a strategy that will suit a marathon rather than a sprint – and intelligent evaluation to understand how a crisis or issue is affecting reputation and the relationships on which a college depends.

These are some of the topics I will be covering in the Crisis Communication masterclass on 7 October.