Who controls the truth during a crisis?

Crisis communication is not just about handling the press. It's about how the organisation communicates with the authorities, partners, employees, media and the general public. It’s about the ability to convey important and precise information efficiently during a high-pressure situation.

But what happens when there is no correlation between how the business experiences a situation and how it’s presented by the media? Who decides what the truth is?

Communication is power

All organisations have an idea of how they want to be perceived by their stakeholders. Unfortunately, this isn’t always consistent with how the situation is, and so it can be tempting to either stop all communication or give incorrect information.  

Both solutions are wrong from a crisis management perspective. It signals that your organisation neither has, nor is able to regain, control over the situation. If you choose not to comment on an event or you only give generic answers, you have in fact declined the opportunity to influence how the situation is portrayed and your stakeholders’ perception of you.

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Synonyms for lying

Embellishing the truth may result in an embarrassing situation later on. It can weaken the organisation’s credibility for the foreseeable future and have severe consequences for those involved further down the line.

The situation in Meymaneh, Afghanistan in 2006 is a relevant example. Because of the caricature drawings of Muhammad, an armed crowd attacked the Norwegian-led ISAF camp in the area.

In his book "Peace Nation", journalist and author, Kristoffer Egeberg describes what transpired in the ensuing events. The Norwegian Defence Ministry decided to control all communication concerning the incident. They provided information about how the Norwegian soldiers in the camp used only non-lethal weapons and that they received assistance from the local police. The problem was that the Ministry's message didn’t reflect the actual situation. The soldiers were fighting for their lives, and even the military chaplain had loaded his weapon. They were all prepared to die.

Luckily, that didn’t happen, and there are few cases where the difference between information and fact is so significant. We can’t, however deny that a situation often looks very different for the crisis management team and c-level executives.

Read more: Why Crisis Management Must be Hierarchical

Become the preferred source of information

So who controls the truth and whose responsibility is it to speak to the public? The answer to this question will vary, depending on the type of organisation you’re in. The most important thing is that it has been clarified in advance and that the process for distributing information is in place before an incident happens.

By initiating communication and making someone available to the press, stakeholders and employees, you will have secured a seat at the table where the situation is discussed.

The ideal scenario is that your organisation becomes the preferred source of information for that particular incident. But this is only possible if you respond quickly, communicate correct information and establish a solid contact network before the crisis. If you want to prevent speculation, rectify mistakes and misunderstandings, and to some extent set the agenda for the information exchange, you must behave like a trustworthy source. This applies to all stakeholders, not just journalists.

A business that misses the mark with its communication may risk creating a communication crisis in addition to the operational crisis. Hiding behind obscure words is not considered honourable. Be present and take control. Both your stakeholders and the people involved will appreciate it. People forgive errors as long as they are acknowledged and corrected.  

 

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By Guest blogger Jarle Ramskjær

Jarle has extensive experience with strategy development and implementation of communication plans related to business management, sales and big projects. He has specialised in issues like defence, security and emergency preparedness.

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