Beyond Crisis Response: A Better Way to Think About Risk & Crisis Communication

When many think about crisis communication, they think about what happens once a crisis emerges and traditional research in the field asks a number of questions like:

  • How should an organization respond?
  • What can protect/re-build an organization’s reputation?
  • How can we minimize the effects of a crisis on organizations and stakeholders

However, I think this is a limited way of thinking about crisis communication that artificially separates it from the risk and crisis communication cycle, which is something that I talk about in the introduction to issues management in my book, Crisis Communication: Managing Stakeholder Relationships.

Adapted from Meng’s (1992) Issues Management Cycle

Increasingly, research is finding that an organizational-centric approach to crisis communication (and more broadly public relations) is limited. If we are to create effective strategic communication campaigns, then we have to be stakeholder-centered in our approach.

This is a pre-recording of the key note presentation that I gave for the 2nd International Conference on Crisis Communication and Conflict Resolution hosted by Babeș-Bolyai University and National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Romania where I outline exactly what I mean by creating a better and more transferrable approach to crisis communication.

What my research has consistent found is that organizations that are trusted and generally have a good reputation can weather even transgressions – where the organization has actually done something wrong… once. Where they get in trouble is when they fail to learn from mistakes of the past or fail to demonstrate improvement. This is why when we think of the crisis lifecycle, we should be thinking of crisis communication as inclusive of risk management, crisis response, and post-crisis learning AND doing so from a stakeholder perspective.

It’s not about altruism – in a very typically Gen X cynical view, I don’t necessarily think that altruism exists, but it’s about constructing crisis resilient organizations that serve the stakeholders’ interests. By making decisions with the confluence of stakeholder and organizational interests together, organizations are more likely to ‘do the right thing’ more often. It’s also not about fuzzy mission statements – frankly, research suggests that most people aren’t interested in an organization’s mission statement, but in the relationship to issues that they care about. For example, asking the question of how the fashion or energy industry are becoming more sustainable is much more important for stakeholders than a company like BP re-branding itself as a ‘green energy’ company, which just comes out sounding like a bit of CSR promotionalism… or lipstick on the pig.

Globally right now, we are seeing the consequences of an era putting lipstick on pigs and the consequences are and should be worrying. In most countries we see a crisis of confidence in institutions and actors ranging from corporations to governments to non-governmental actors and for good reason – these institutions have failed to manage the relationships between themselves, their stakeholders, and the issues affecting both of them.

Why, for example, are disinformation campaigns about vaccination creating global problems with vaccination – not just for COVID, but also for routine vaccinations? Because media, governments, and health authorities are not only losing the trust of many people but they have also often failed to effectively translate the science to stakeholders. This creates an information vacuum and that information vacuum will be filled. We have to stop thinking about people who are vaccine hesitant as nutty American wack-a-doos who believe in Q-Anon, that lizard people control us all, and that Bill Gates is trying to implant us all with microchips. Of course, nutters exist. My 100 year old great uncle recently died of COVID because his son has drunk the kool-aid of disinformation campaigns and not only doesn’t believe in the vaccination but doesn’t really even believe that COVID is that big of a deal.

When I talk about the big idea of thinking about crisis communication as the total package of risk, crisis response, and organizational learning to create better and more responsive organizations that are connected with their stakeholders and perceived as trying to act in their stakeholders’ best interests, then that means a lot about mass-media models of public relations, journalism, and governance need to be reconsidered.