Communicating in a crisis

 The devastating earthquake which hit Christchurch on February 22, and the resulting death and destruction in its aftermath has highlighted – in all too much reality – the need for having excellent crisis communication systems in place. So far, the communications efforts coming out from Christchurch have been very good.

In a perverse way, the city’s earlier earthquake on September 4 – in which a fair bit of damage was done to buildings and infrastructure, but where no deaths occurred – had given those now involved a dummy run in managing crisis communications during such a natural disaster. Christchurch is also lucky in that its main spokesman and current mayor is former TV front man Bob Parker. The former ‘This is Your Life” host is a consummate communicator, is not rattled by the media circus and is eloquent in getting out necessary key messages.

A crisis is an event that occurs suddenly, often unexpectedly and demands a quick response – ie an earthquake. A crisis will interfere with normal routines and business, create uncertainty and stress. Well-managed crisis communications can not only preserve reputations and credibility, but can also enhance them.

The key to effective crisis communication is to be prepared before a crisis occurs. Once an emergency happens, there is little time to think much less to plan. Without a crisis plan, you can be overwhelmed by events.

In a crisis, the best course of action is to be forthcoming and honest and do what it takes to facilitate stories. Remember, the media are going to write and air stories with or without your help. So it’s in your best interest to participate in a story – even a negative one – in order to have your position correctly represented.

During a crisis, bring all the key media players into a room and get the facts straight. But never tell more than you actually know and constantly update reporters. Journalists have to get information out – and often they are competing to ‘break’ stories first. If you don’t give them anything – they may be forced to report on rumours.

Five key tips for crisis communications:

• Have a crisis plan in place.

• In a time of crisis, go public as soon as you can – but only with what you actually know.

• Get top management or officials to front the crisis.

• Keep your internal audiences informed.

• Update both media and internal audiences frequently and regularly.

Trying to tame the online tiger

 In the last few years we have literally seen an explosion in social media – Facebook, blogs, twitter et el – are now all the rage.

The arrival of all this new media has seen the metaphorical birth of ‘monkeys with typewriters’. While this brings with it both many good (more competition) and bad (lack of standards) aspects to journalism that unregulated competition brings, it also brings further complications of how this impacts on communications by organisations and people.

Nowadays, it is not just mainstream media that these have to contend with, but also users of new media. The reality today is that anybody can set themselves up with a blogger account or a twitter site and – depending on their following – wax lyrically or (in most cases) not so lyrically about you, your company/organisation.

It was while reading some of the latest figures on people’s rating of mainstream media and the internet for information sources New Zealand: Social Media – Trends – DIGITAL MEDIA ACROSS ASIA which reminded of something Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on!” 

Going by these figures, it seems, the old British Bulldog was right on the money! According to this reseach, the internet is rated highly as a source of information – above all the other sources in this survey. With 65% rating the internet as important placing it as a more important source of information for people than television (55%), newspapers (53%), and radio (44%). The internet was even rated even higher than interpersonal sources like family and friends (53%) or community services such as libraries (45%).

What this tells us – like it or not – the majority of people believe what they read on the online. (Unfortunately, it seems technology is making people gullible rather than more informed!) So it means that companies; organisations; politicians or anyone who wants to communicate with the public, needs to be aware of and to manage their online presence. It is worth businesses and organisations taking the time and/or putting the resources into looking after their online reputation.

People looking to manage their reputation need to understand that internet and social media management is a tiger that needs to be tamed before it turns wild and unmanagable.

Writing for the web

Short and sharp is best

Writing for an online audience – or the web – is a much different beast to writing for print.
If successful online writing could be summed up in one succinct message, it would be: the shorter, the better!
Why is it not the same as writing for print? Because people behave differently on online.
Basically it comes down to two key factors – the physical limitations of computer screens and how people conduct themselves online.
The physical barriers posed today are much less than in the past – when computer monitors were hopelessly fuzzy compared to the crisp images of a glossy magazine. Meanwhile, a previous lack of computer portability meant the ability to take a newspaper to bed, on the bus – or even to the loo – gave printed material an advantage over online rivals.
However, the development of both the laptop and IPad has lessened this disadvantage. But there is still that tactile feel of books and magazines which people like – compared to the sterile feel of say an IPad.
Other physical impediment to online written material will also lessen over time. Today’s monitors are vastly superior to the ones used a decade ago—while continual improvements are being made with software all to make the online experience even better.
However, the more significant barrier online writers must overcome is not the physical and technological advances – but behavioural.
Anyone who’s observed, tested, or studied online reading agrees that people conduct themselves differently when online. The advent of the computer has only added to the human race’s constant feeling of being time poor. So when people are reading or looking for information online, they don’t so much read—but scan. The word that best describes this behaviour is: impatient.
The challenge for the web writer is to overcome online readers’ impatience and to keep things as brief as possible – short and sharp is good!
It’s a big challenge, but one those writing for an online must be mindful of.

How to develop effective key messages

Key messages are the core points or facts which you want a target audience to either read, hear or see and remember.

These create meaning and attention on an issue – ie new product, policy launch, or idea – that you want to gain publicity on.

Ensuring that you have well-developed, key messages will allow you to better control communication around your topic, and also enhance the relationship with the audiences you are wanting to talk to. Key messages are intended to illustrate exactly just what you really need to get across on the topic you are communicating.

But first you need to know and ask yourself:

What are the critical messages that I want to communicate?

These are what you must say and get across in any communication situation (press conference, media interview, speech) — irrespective of what questions an audience may ask.

When developing your key messages – be it for a business document, media releases or a speech – you need to keep the audience in mind you are wanting to talk to and focus on your messages with it in mind.

You should also work out in advance, exactly what you want say and what you wish to get across on the topic concerned. It is best not to have any more than six or seven messages on any one topic – as any more will only dilute your point.

Key messages are commonly known as water cooler or BBQ statements — what we want our target audiences to say when they are discussing the topic around a BBQ with their friends.

Criteria for Key Messages

  • Be believable — support you points with evidence
  • Be understood — ensure to reflect the  target audience’s understanding in your messaging
  • Be distinctive
  • Be agreed — have everyone speaking about the topic singing off the same song sheet
  • Be credible — know your stuff
  • Drive your agenda
  • Avoid being negative and always accentuate the positive