If we look at the current crisis from a sociological perspective, we can describe the Corona pandemic as a ‘wicked problem’. Literally translated, it is a tricky, thorny, common problem. It is a very complex problem, it is unique, the full extent nor the exact solution are known. Typical of the societal complexities associated with such a wicked problem is that each person involved can look at it differently, all with a little bit of value and a little bit of non-value. As a communication expert, how do you deal with this?
We asked four questions to a group of experts from different sectors. Their answers were bundled into recommendations. Hopefully they will help you to better deal with information flow, communication inside and outside your organisation, and to get a bigger buy-in from your Crisis Management Team regarding your communication strategy.
What information do you give priority to?
As a communications expert, you are confronted with various crisis partners and stakeholders, each with their own part of the communication puzzle. Of course, everyone considers their information the most important, and wants that information to be communicated first to the rest of the organisation or to the outside world.
Therefore, as the person responsible for communication, not only do you need to have a good overview of all available information, you also need to align the information provided with the mental framework of your stakeholders. In other words: you must have a good overview of the information needs of your stakeholders and prioritise communication accordingly. Be aware of the facts, indicate the actions and recognize the needs (FAN). These are the three key concepts.
From the answers we extract the following steps:
- Start by correctly capturing communication, information, measures and guidelines from the national level.
- Do an internal and/or external perception analysis: how do people in your organisation perceive this crisis? And what about the stakeholders outside your organisation’? Map impact, needs and sentiment.
- Link your communication to their impact, needs and sentiment: use Facts, Actions, Needs (FAN) in your communication to your own staff, but also to your management.
- Use “we know, we do, we care, we’ll be back” for your external communication.
- Translate Facts, Actions, Needs in your communication to your own organisation. This way, you clarify what is going on and place the organisation of your own activities in a broader framework that refers to the information and guidelines of the government. This makes it easier for people to understand your message.
- Information that is important for everyone and should be applied immediately
- Information that is important for specific stakeholders should be applied immediately
- Information of general interest, but not urgent
- Useful information for specific stakeholders, but not urgent
- Don’t forget to share positive news as well! Celebrate small victories! Sharing a warm initiative or a lighter, fun news fact helps to keep the morale of everyone involved.
- Focus on internal communication; that’s where the biggest need is! Moreover, internal is often also external.
- Remember the Pareto principle: 20 percent of your input provides 80 percent of the result. So think carefully about what you put your time and energy into!
- First determine what you want to achieve with your communication. Then present your information as clearly and bundled as possible; who is it for? What should you do with it? What do you detect and how do you deal with it (process information)? Don’t forget to leave room for feedback or extra questions.
- And above all: be consistent in your message and spread it via your familiar channels.
How do you gain confidence of your crisis management team (CMT)?
It’s a bit simplistic to say that you should have worked on your credibility and trust even before this Corona crisis. Luckily, every crisis is an opportunity for communication teams to show their expertise or to strengthen it in ‘the heat of the moment’. Understanding what a CMT is doing, what their challenges are, and which decision-making processes they use (See-Appreciate-Decide) is crucial in order to gain a place as a reliable (communication) partner of the CMT. Therefore, the following advice:
- Rule #1: Make sure there’s structure in your own Crisis Communication Team (CCT)
- As a CCT responsible, take a clear position in the CMT and report frequently and clearly on impact, needs and sentiment within/outside your organisation.
- In the CMT, be part of the solution, not part of the problem. You do this by listening and asking specific questions based on your information needs.
- Your most important role as an advisor in the CMT is to differentiate perception and reality, to interpret them and to answer them in terms of the communication strategy to be followed.
- The transition from reality to perception in imaging (and vice versa) should be central.
- Good decision-making and a clear meeting structure (See-Appreciate-Decide) must be central in the CMT. Help to install or maintain it.
- Make sure that, as the person responsible for communication, you maintain a ‘helicopter view’. This allows you to prevent an ‘information overload’.
- A ‘helicopter view’ helps to detect and nourish ‘meaning making’ in your organisation.
- If you are not able to do this yourself, for example because you are doing too much, make sure that you can rely on a ‘contradictor’. This is someone you can trust 100%, who can take distance, gauge the temperature in the organisation, and with whom you can brainstorm about your communication strategy and approach.
- Deepen yourself in how CMT deals with business continuity and consequence analyses.
Who or what can help defend your strategy?
Knowing who and what you can rely on is crucial. You can’t solve a crisis on your own. Involving sufficient and different knowledge is one thing, letting them work together is another. Coordinating with the CMT and building alliances can help. Developing a strategy, working it out and putting it into practice is team effort. This requires a team that has the same end goal. If you don’t have a team, gather people around you on whom you can fall back for advice, a sounding board, or a helping hand. You determine the end goal on the basis of your perception analysis. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and you can easily adopt best practices from other organisations. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that others can do so much better, though. Every organisation is different, so every organisation deserves a different communication approach!
- Strategy is, among other things, based on the results of your perception analysis.
- Make clear what you want to achieve in the short, medium and long term.
- Attention: these are three different thinking processes, which must complement each other.
- Make alliances: within your own organisation, within the CMT, but also with colleagues outside your organisation.
- Bring people with knowledge and experience together, and let them work together.
- There’s a difference between being right and being proved right. With a good strategy, based on a solid perception analysis, it is easier to succeed!
- Discussing your plan beforehand and checking with an ‘contradictor’ can help to strengthen it, but it can also help you persuade others.
Why is this issue surfacing right now?
It’s a so-called wicked problem. There is no easy fix and that frightens a lot of people. Furthermore, familiar methods and processes for crisis management and communication have ceased to work. At the same time, we are confronted with an overload of communication channels, which does not make it easier for a communication service to capture all information, let alone pass it on.
Realise that you are not the only one who is confronted with these problems. So: relax, nothing is under control!
Hugo Marynissen is senior partner at PM • Risk Crisis Change. Since 2008 he has provided regular coaching and consultancy services in the field of risk and crisis management. During the terror attacks in Brussels (March 22, 2016), PM advised Belgium’s Prime Minister and his team on the crisis communication strategy.
Kim De Raedt is a crisis advisor and strategist with a background in both Media and Government, with a great focus on editorial work, advice on media mix/content planning and crisis trainings over the past years. Since 2017, Kim is an active member of TeamD5, the Federal Belgian Crisis Communications Response Team.
Initiative and at the request of
Stijn Pieters (PM • Risk Crisis Change), Dany Daelemans (Communication AZ Sint Maarten) and Johan Meerbergen (Coordinator communication vzw Emmaüs).
With support from: Annebeth Boudry (Kortom) and Lieve Dhaene (Zorgnet-Icuro).
With input of the following respondents. Thank you for your contribution!
- Anne Coetsier (HR manager, vzw Zorg-Saam)
- Bert Brugghemans (Fire chief, Brandweer Zone Antwerpen)
- Catherine Zenner (Communication responsible, AZ Maria Middelares Gent and AZ Sint-Vincentius Deinze)
- Frank Maertens (Fire chief, Fluvia)
- Jasmien O (Head of communications, Brandweer Zone Antwerpen and member of TeamD5)
- Karlien Wouters (Press officer UZ Gent)
- Katrien Goossens (Communication expert)
- Kevin Mollet (Communication responsible, AZ Damiaan)
- Peter van Thienen (Coordinator Hospital Emergency Plan, ZNA)
- Roeland Kortleven (Head of communications, Gemeente Mol)
- Rudy Claeys (Head of Department Prevention & Environment, AZ Sint-Elisabeth Zottegem)
- Sofie Daniels (Head of communications Stad Hasselt and member of TeamD5)
- Stijn Pieters (Managing Partner, PM • Risk Crisis Change and member of TeamD5)
- Tim Van Achte (District09 – City of Ghent, and member of TeamD5)
- Vanessa Broux (Communication responsible Stad Genk and member of TeamD5)
- Veronique Degryse (Communication Responsible, Stad Roeselare)