10 C's of Effective Crisis Communications
Updated: May 21
*Special thanks to Dr. Richard Rush, Director of Communications, City of Tuscaloosa, for his research and thoughts.
Some of the most significant technological advancements of the last 20 years have been in personal communications, yet our ability to effectively communicate has not been enhanced nor has it improved.
If covered by the national media, they were likely considered a crisis by someone. If in your personal life, then they were a crisis for you and those impacted. While communications have become quicker and perhaps more efficient, effective communications still require more. They take patience, planning, preparation, and purpose.
If you are a lawyer like me, we have no excuse for poor or ineffective communications. It is our job. We are or should be professional communicators. Whether advocating for a client or reducing an agreement to writing, we are using communication skills. So, here are some tips, 10 to be exact, on effective communications. They are applicable to all communications, oral or written, whether in a crisis, a brief, an oral argument, a love letter, or a voice mail message.
And they all happen to begin with the letter “C”, so perhaps they will be memorable.
When was the last time that you heard a “crisis” reported in the news? Last week? Yesterday? Within the last few hours? Everyone, even lawyers, dread the day they must deal with a crisis. Part of the dread is dealing with everyone else who is not used to dealing with such stressful situations and part is balancing the potential legal exposure with the need to communicate effectively. Lawyers are professional communicators – or should be. Here are some thoughts on how to effectively deal with a crisis, from a communication standpoint. This suggested checklist of attributes is not limited to crises. Including these traits makes all communications more effective.
First, A Word About Crisis…
Most problems that get out of hand and turn into full-blown crises are related to a lack of effective communication—at some level. This lack of effective communication by individuals and organizations can originate internally or externally, personally or professionally. Many individuals, even communication directors, lack the ability to navigate a crisis simply because they have never considered the rudimentary
requirements of simple and effective communications. They have trouble remaining focused on the big picture while stewing about in the weeds. Communicating effectively with stakeholders (both external and internal) before, during and following a crisis, can mitigate losses to finances, stakeholder trust, reputation, market share, etc.
What is a crisis?
You certainly know one when you find yourself in it, but what technically constitutes as a crisis? A crisis has been identified as a situation with three characteristics: surprise, threat, and short response time.
Though there are many definitions, the most accurate and useful was written by crisis communication researchers:
"a specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and simultaneously present an organization or indiviudal with both opportunities for and threats to its high-priority goals."
Although by definition, crises are unexpected, that does not mean unpredictable. Regardless of the facts or situation, there are certain negative events or perceptions that are predictable, or more likely to occur than others. The unexpectedness leading to a crisis is simply that the timing of its occurrence cannot be definitively predicted. For example, an organization that sells rat poison might reasonably expect that its product could be ingested by something or someone other than a rat. That fact is predictable. The whom, what, when or how it will happen is not. Were it to occur, it could create a crisis. However, if the seller anticipates the occurrence, it can more effectively handle the situation when
Effective communication strategies allow us to view the term “crisis” as its symbol is interpreted in the original Mandarin—a “dangerous opportunity.”
By its very nature, crises are dangerous moments in the life of an organization or individual; however, if handled effectively, the situation could create an opportunity. If you are the lawyer in the room planning a crisis response, everyone will be looking to you for direction. Why? Lawyers are used to dealing with
stressful, intense situations. Whether you appreciate it or not, others do. So, you need to be prepared.
The following tips will help you in a crisis and with every other communication.
THE FIRST “C”: Convenient
The communication must be convenient – easy and timely – for the recipient.
They shouldn’t go looking for it. They will read or hear whatever is easiest to digest – and that is what they will believe. Making a communication convenient applies to non-crises too. It should be easy for the intended recipient to understand what you are trying to communicate, and they should receive the communication no later than when they expect it.
Acting in a timely manner is one of the most important strategies for effectively communicating during any crisis. Crisis communication has always demanded that an organization or individual use the best crafted message delivered by the most effective method to the most targeted audience.
The speed at which this message must be delivered increases every day. The industry standard is to have a response to the news media, social media publics, internal and external publics, and other stakeholders, within the first hour of becoming aware of the crisis event.
The communication must be in a format and via a method that is easy each of the intended audiences to receive, which takes time. Therefore, it is important to prepare ahead of time.
THE FIRST TO TELL IS THE MOST REMEMBERED
The first to tell the story is the one that sets the framework. This is a major reason for preparing for potential crises before they occur. The time to begin writing talking points and press releases is not in the middle of a crisis. Neglecting to prepare is a sure-fire way to ensure that you are not telling the story, but are reacting to stories being told by others. Effective crisis communication allows pre-prepared information to be at the fingertips of those who need it at a moment’s notice.
THE SECOND "C": Certain
Being honest and genuine during a crisis is the best way to ensure that uncertainty does not grow in the minds of your stakeholders, both internal and external. Uncertainty is the most devastating attribute of a crisis.
If you aren’t certain about a fact yet, don’t make assumptions. Because a crisis is dependent on the perceptions of stakeholders, it is important to manage the uncertainty in their minds. You must be certain of what you are communicating, and the recipients must be certain of your certainty.
If you aren’t honest and genuine upfront, the truth will inevitably catch up with you, and you will never have the confidence and trust of your recipients again. Regaining their faith is much harder than keeping it to begin with. Doing this begins with honest and open communication before a crisis ever occurs.
If a stakeholder believes that you have their well-being in mind, they are much more likely to weather the storm with you instead of standing by as a spectator. There are countless stories of organizations and individuals that have suffered crises in which their stakeholders helped to pull them through, and as a result, the organization came out stronger on the other side. This doesn’t happen unless the stakeholders truly believe that you would do the same for them.
This characteristic applies to other communications as well. Even in personal communications, assumptions lead to problems. And so does uncertainty.
THE THIRD "C": Consistent
Communications from an organization or individual must always be consistent. Whether communicating in a crisis or just day-to-day, you must be consistent in how, when, and where you are communicating.
Be consistent in how you communicate.
All communications need to be consistent with one another in content, style, format and focus. Stakeholders expect consistency, and when there is a lack of consistency, they can become anxious and averse to your message.
Be consistent in when you communicate.
In a crisis, it might be beneficial to release information at relevant intervals. Once stakeholders or other recipients learn that they can depend on you consistently releasing information and up-to-date facts at certain times, they will begin to actively search for those communications. This will cut down on potential interruptions while you are communicating in a crisis.
In a crisis, stakeholders also need to know that they can depend on you to provide them information no later than when they need it or, otherwise, as soon as you have it. For example, if you call a press conference and have nothing to say, then the press may not be there when you do have important information to share. This consistency is not just important to outside entities, the media and other external stakeholders, but also to internal stakeholders.
Be consistent in where you communicate.
It is also beneficial to release information consistently on specific platforms. Stakeholders will know where to go when a crisis strikes to hear your side of the story rather than searching on other mediums that might not be communicating in your favor. Even if the delivery method used is eventually improved or changed, your intended recipients are much more likely to go along with the new delivery method because of this past consistency.
THE FOURTH "C": Complete
Holding back on what you know is tantamount to dishonesty in the eyes of many. The information you convey must be complete to be effective in handling crisis communications.
As explained throughout this series, you must communicate with your stakeholders in a timely fashion, but you must also ensure that the information you are communicating is complete to the best of your abilities. And, for the information that might not yet be complete, informing your stakeholders that there will be additional facts to communicate in the future is crucial. This is important in a crisis but equally important in day-to-day communications.
Waiting while you circle the wagons or form the perfect sound bite often leads to uncertainty in the minds of your stakeholders (see our third “C”: Consistency).
To ease their minds, they must know that you will give them information as quickly as you receive it. Obviously, you must confirm the information first, and they should understand that. However, rather than postponing your response until you know all that there is to know about an event, it may be more beneficial to consistently release some information at predetermined intervals.
For the information you communicate to be complete, you must also seek the complete story.
No one has any patience for someone who chooses not to ask themselves (or their organization) the important questions simply because they are afraid of the answer.
For example, in recent news, it might have been pertinent for police departments to determine whether a police officer who has been accused of excessive force has a prior record of similar disciplinary issues? Be the first to ask because your stakeholders will. And, they will have expected you to.
Ignorance is no excuse.
THE FIFTH "C": Clear
The hallmark of any good communication, whether in times of crisis or peace, is clarity. Vague communications lead to uncertainty and misunderstandings as a basis for a problem or a crisis. When an organization or individual releases a statement, it should be so clear that others cannot easily read into it or form alternative opinions.
Say It Like You Mean It
A statement released to a group of internal stakeholders should be written as if it were going to be released to the public as well. Prior to the age of social media, statements could be released to different target audiences at different times to inform groups of publics in a predetermined order. That is no longer the case. With the click of a button, any communication can be forwarded from one group to another within a matter of seconds.
Because statements are going to be read by persons other than the targeted high priority, it is important to do the following to always keep the points clear:
Release sound bites that say exactly what you want to say and nothing more.
Be as efficient as possible, getting to the point with every statement and adding nothing unnecessary that could be misinterpreted.
Clarity does not mean lacking information, but it does mean lacking multiple interpretations.
THE SIXTH "C": Concise
As lawyers, we generally love to hear ourselves talk. And we love to wax on eloquently when we write. That is great for a novel, if you are William Faulkner. But, judges consistently point to those briefs that are direct and concise as the persuasive ones.
We must adjust our style of writing if we are to be effective communicators, especially when the coming generations aren’t even used to reading complete words in texts. Even the newer versions of Word will make suggestions not just to correct spelling and grammar, but to strike unnecessary words.
In addition to not using superfluous language, we also need to be careful not to add anything unnecessary – especially in crisis communications. Communicate the message that you intend to communicate as directly and concisely as possible. This avoids raising questions that you haven’t answered. It also avoids saying something that appears innocuous with the current state of facts, but becomes significant later. If you knew that it was going to become significant, perhaps you would have said it differently. If it didn’t need to be said at all at the time, you avoided all that trouble.
THE SEVENTH "C": Credible
Credibility is something that generally must be built and earned. Building strong stakeholder relationships prior to a crisis is the best way to ensure credibility. You can be honest in your response to a crisis, but without credibility there is no assurance your audience will believe anything you are saying.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a core value system built into their crisis management handbook that they should strive to always, “Be first, be right, be credible”. All communicators should have the same value system. Being first allows you to frame the story, and being right on a consistent basis builds credibility. Maintaining that credibility over time allows you to become an authority on the topic. The CDC’s value system is the perfect example of this. Through years of being first, being right and being credible, the CDC has not only maintained, but strengthened their authority on all issues related to disease control in the United States. When a health crisis breaks in the U.S., the CDC is the first place that people turn to get accurate and timely information.
Credibility for an organization is built and destroyed by its individuals. Don’t ask someone to say or author something for which they have no credibility. Make sure the right person within the organization is attributed with a communication. Reading a review of a new car by someone who hasn’t driven it or has not driven many other cars lacks credibility on its face, even if the author and his motives are pure.
The Eighth "C": Compassionate
Given the conduct of many people who are the focus of so much media attention these days, one might wonder if we are a compassionate people. But, perhaps, the reason the media focuses on these individuals is how shocking and unconscionable their lack of compassion is to our standards.
People expect others to be compassionate even if they aren’t. Many who seem to lack any compassion appear that way because they take advantage of the compassion of others. In a crisis, the public will expect compassion. And, even if they don’t, or especially if they don’t, they will react positively to it. Again, all of these characteristics apply. Compassion alone won’t carry the day. And, the compassion must be credible. People like kindness. And, in a world where we experience less of it, it is appreciated even more.
James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA, states the critical importance of effective communication skills following a crisis:
“You can empathize with their pain and embarrassment at being helpless. You can make adjustments to the recovery process based on their need for dignity. You can make sure they have shelter and a hot meal. You can listen to their stories and acknowledge their concerns. You can hug them and let them cry on your shoulder. You can say to them as I do, we can’t bring back your memories, but we can help you build new ones.[i]”
Compassion and empathy communicated in a genuine way are keys to moving forward following a crisis and often open the door for optimism rather than uncertainty. People want to feel as though you are in the trenches with them. The honest response from your organization may not always be positive, but if the message is given with genuine care and empathy for stakeholders, it will more likely be received positively.
Of course, this is true in communications other than those in a crisis as well. Even in delivering a message that is not what someone wants to hear, a little kindness and compassion goes a long way. Expressing compassion is not wasted words. You can be concise and clear and still be compassionate.
Compassion is not just contained within the message, but should be considered in how the message is delivered. The what, when, where and how of the communication must be compassionate. Perhaps a phone call is better than an email. Perhaps a written letter is better than an email. Perhaps an email is more considerate than a phone call. Perhaps the communication needs to be in writing to really be effective. And, timing is everything.
[i] (Witt & Morgan, 2002), p. 147
The Ninth "C": Conscientious
According to Merriam-Webster, “conscientious” means to be meticulous, careful, scrupulous or governed by or conforming to the dictates of conscience.
Communications, especially in a crisis, must be conscientious. They will be weighed or measured by society’s standard of what is right. Of course, that can be a moving target. And, everyone may not agree on what is “right” in each circumstance.
Remember the audience, and remember the stakeholders. And, remember that what we are talking about here is how you communicate a decision, point of view or a course of action in the most effective manner. If there is a predominant touchstone of “right,” then referencing it or using it as a launch point can be both helpful and persuasive.
THE TENTH "C": Conscious
Effective communications must be prepared and delivered with an awareness of surrounding events, circumstances, and situations. Be aware what people are pre-disposed to believe. Be aware of the rumors. Be aware of what people want to know. In other words, the message cannot be formulated in a vacuum.
When individuals and organizations face a crisis, the natural response is to attempt to transfer blame to someone else. This can be effective in the right circumstance. But, when a crisis is unfolding and it appears that the responsibility may belong to your organization, communications which only shift the blame are ineffective. Giving your stakeholders information that they want to know, not just the information you want them to know, should be at the forefront of every decision that you make about communications during a crisis.
Again, this characteristic also applies to communications other than those in a crisis. Being aware of the state of facts and opinions into which you are about to inject a message or communication should help shape your communication.
That’s All Folks…
Following is link to download a 10-point checklist including the 10 “C’s” of this whitepaper.
Use it when reviewing your communications to ensure that you are always effectively communicating.
Try it. You’ll see.
Observe other effective communicators. You will find these characteristics in their communications.
And, when communications are ineffective, you will readily see how referring to this checklist could
have prevented grief for an individual or organization.