Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Communications in times of crisis

17 Aug 2019
While each crisis may throw up its unique challenges, there are many things we can do to prepare ourselves and our organisations to better manage a situation as it unfolds.

By Ruth Francis 

Many years ago, when I was a junior press officer, my boss said to me: “You can’t plan for a crisis because each and every one is different.” Since then I’ve learned that this is absolutely not true. While each crisis may throw up its unique challenges, there are many things we can do to prepare ourselves and our organisations to better manage a situation as it unfolds.

Though it is impossible to imagine every scenario, run ‘what if’ exercises to scope out what a crisis could look like for your organisation: perhaps research misconduct, bullying, or a criminal case against a member of staff. Map out who needs to be kept in the loop, how you may react, and what tools and channels you would use to communicate. Where could a responsive statement sit on your website? What channels would you use to let people know it’s there? Who needs approval before it goes out? 

Agreeing in advance how you communicate internally and externally during a crisis will save time and flustered calls and emails when you’re up against it. Crises often happen during the holiday season when people are traveling and hard to get hold of, so planning with contingency is crucial.

Here are some basics to get you going:

Respond quickly 

When the call comes in from a reporter or a crisis is unfolding on social media, it feels urgent, and should be treated as such, but there is no need to panic. You don’t have to provide a full response immediately. There is time to gather initial facts and determine a course of action with your leadership. You can tell reporters you will respond in a couple of hours and even them give them a holding statement saying you’re looking into things before making a full comment. 

Don’t leave a vacuum

Even if it turns out you can’t say a lot more in detail, perhaps because of confidentiality, if you don’t say anything at all, people start to fill in gaps for you. I’ve been in situations where we’ve had to wait weeks for a full investigation before we could decide our course of action. In those instances, we would provide a statement with links to our procedures and policies, and explained why it would take time before we could act, and that our actions would be taken transparently in due course.

Accept responsibility

If your organisation is at fault in some way, it is best to admit that something went wrong and that the organisation is doing what it can to ensure it won’t happen again. These cannot be empty words. You have to be specific about what is being done, such as a change in protocol or in policy, and how that will make a difference in the future. If someone else is at fault, it may not be the best time to point that out. A more helpful approach may be to share your organisation’s concern for the people or groups affected by the situation, if appropriate.

Be transparent

In a crisis, everyone is looking at you. If you don’t have all the information, that’s OK. Don’t try to hide the fact that you don’t know something. Explain that you’re working to try to get it.

Don’t forget internal and stakeholder communications

Whatever you tell media or social media, make sure you know how to reach staff and other stakeholders and keep them involved throughout an unfolding scenario. Not only should they be a priority for communications, they can be ambassadors for your organisation.  

Most importantly remember that it will pass. Keep breathing and if you need to step away from the melee and clear your head then do so.

At the end of the day, people do not remember the details of a crisis, they remember how an organisation handled itself. I’m proud to say I’ve worked through a couple in my time that have resulted in praise for the company, because of our transparency and actions during and after the crisis. In one instance, we brought on board the person who reported the issue to help protect against similar events occurring and genuinely changed policies and procedures. Not all crises will work out that positively, but I always feel I’ve learned from the experience and many times it has sharpened my skills.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.