Crisis communications – academics and practitioners learning and sharing global best practice

Crisis communications was the agenda for last week at the Crisis6 conference where PR and communications academics and practitioners from around the world gathered to discuss the latest global best practice. Crisis6 was the sixth annual International Crisis Communication Conference organised by ECREA (the European Communication Research and Education Association).

It was an unusual experience for me for two reasons. Firstly, when I attend a conference it’s usually to speak and this time I was simply there to learn and network. Secondly, it was in Leeds. If you live in London it will be normal for you to attend international conferences in your own city. If you live in Leeds it isn’t. It was in Leeds because each year a different university hosts it and this year it was Leeds Beckett University (LBU), although it wasn’t actually held on campus.

Crisis6 is primarily a conference for PR and communications academics, but there were a few practitioners there and some academics who also practice and consult. It is disappointing that more public relations professionals don’t take advantage of the wealth of knowledge and research available from the many universities that research and teach PR and communications.

The main downside of the ECREA conference for me was that it ran as parallel sessions so sometimes it was hard to choose between two that were on at the same time, and occasionally neither session really appealed.

Crisis communications simulation

It was therefore apt that the first sessions presented me with the dilemma of choosing between a crisis communication simulation run by LBU’s Audra Diers-Lawson and a session on social media analytics.

I chose the crisis communication simulation where the scenario was from the airline industry. On my table, I was able to draw upon what I’d learnt when I attended the IATA Global Crisis Communications Summit to give a keynote on digital and social media crisis communications. The most interesting and useful part was actually the discussion after the simulation where we explored how simulations can be used, the benefits of doing them and how they can be made more effective.

In the evening we had a networking reception and series of short keynote presentations, all of which were informative. Torsten Rössing kicked off with an excellent presentation where he reminded everyone about the realities of crisis communications from a practitioner perspective.

Crisis communications best practice

All of the points Torsten made will be familiar to people who have been on one of my crisis communications courses and included:

  • What are the best examples of crisis communications and issues management? We don’t know and will never know because the issues management was so effective it never became a huge, public crisis. One of the challenges of studying academic research into crisis communications is it can only study the crises that are known therefore it never studies the most successful examples.
  • How do you measure something that didn’t happen? Successful crisis communications means you don’t get media coverage, nothing changes with the share price, sales don’t drop and employees don’t leave.
  • What are the consequences? A wave of bad publicity and media coverage isn’t necessarily a serious crisis if it doesn’t have a material impact on the business or organisation. Torsten used the example of VW, where sales didn’t take an immediate hit from the emissions scandal.
  • It’s not public relations, but stakeholder relations. Every organisation has multiple stakeholders. It, therefore, has multiple reputations. All stakeholders and reputations aren’t equal. Some are more important than others. What matters most is knowing which stakeholders matter most and ensuring they are the priority in maintaining a good reputation with them, even if this means at the expense of reputation with another stakeholder group.
  • It won’t be solved by communications. Torsten left the best till last. What a company does is the most important way for a company to protect its reputation in a crisis. It won’t be solved by communications alone.

Leadership and cultural differences

Daniel Monehim shared some thoughts and PhD research on leadership and crisis communications. He reminded us about the importance of understanding different perspectives on optimism and pessimism. What’s a storm in a teacup to some is a force nine hurricane to others.

Keri Stephens, an associate professor in organisational communication technology at the University of Texas in Austin, shared her research into social media and flooding. The most interesting part of this research wasn’t so much the findings as the methodology. The research was based on using private social media data that was painstakingly collected using one-to-one interviews with people.

Professor Stephen Croucher, head of the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing at Massey University in New Zealand, shared some fascinating insights into cultural differences. He explained how we should be wary of relying on commonly accepted theories such as Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory. Stephen pointed at that the actual research data wasn’t publicly available.

Complexity and multiple stakeholders

Day two of Crisis6 kicked off with an interesting presentation which looked at the complexity of crisis management and communication. It introduced the new Four Levels of Interdependencies Model. It studies the interactions and interrelations between corporate communication and other business divisions as well as with partner organisations.

Another interesting session presented the results of some research into how time pressure impacted on crisis decision making. One of the factors it examined was comparing analytical decision making with intuitive decision making in a crisis.

Does emotion work in crisis communications?

One of the most interesting sessions touched on the thorny issue of empathy and presented research by Lieze Schoofs of KU Leuven, Belgium. Perceived wisdom amongst crisis communications practitioners today is that showing emotion and empathy is the right thing to do in a crisis. This study was based on social psychological research on the importance of empathy for forgiveness to understand how and why verbal and visual emotional expressions in organisational crises affect reputation repair.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the study indicated that organisations should not be afraid to allow spokespeople to show genuine emotions responding to crises. It did however also show that emotions need to be balanced with the need to show competence and that during the acute crisis phase emotions might pose a reputational risk if it meant an organisation’s competence could be questioned.

Another session which I found useful was Kate Boothroyd talking about risk. Her focus was on correctly defining risk and why it is important to understand what risk is and to use the right language to understand it and talk about it. It was a very practical session and I’ll be updating the sections of my crisis communications and issues management courses where I talk about understanding reputational risk.

Professional ethics, whistleblowing and crisis communications

The final keynote session was one that I knew a little bit about before the conference. It was a keynote by Peer Jacob Svenkerund who used to be the director of communications at Norsk Tipping, the Norwegian National Lottery. I first discovered the Norsk Tipping story when I was doing some research to give a keynote speech at the European Lotteries Association conference for communications professionals at all the European national lotteries.

Peer gave an intimate and personal talk on how he discovered malpractice at Norsk Tipping. The malpractice was largely about the misuse of resources which included things like Lear jet trips to go fishing in Iceland and Ireland. As the malpractice was by the CEO he had three choices – to ignore it, to quit or to whistleblow. He eventually chose to become a whistleblower by taking it to the chair of the board of trustees that oversaw the lottery. This eventually resulted in an investigation during which Peer was instructed to keep his role as the whistleblower secret. This put an incredible personal strain on him. Eventually, after the investigation, his identity finally emerged when the leading Norwegian financial newspaper discovered his name. It said it was going to publish the story and urged him to name himself, but said that it wouldn’t ‘out’ him. Peer chose to be named.

Can PR be an organisation’s moral compass?

It was a fascinating story for many aspects which made me think more about the role of public relations within an organisation and the role of whistleblowers. Many people often talk about PR’s role being akin to an ‘organisational conscience’ or ‘moral compass’.

But if it is then how does the senior PR person do something about it?

If the lack of moral compass is the CEO or board then where does the PR professional go next?

Is it really whistleblowing to go to the chair of the board of trustees overseeing the organisation?

Is the private sector equivalent to approach one or more of the non-executive directors?

But what happens if they don’t act?

How are the actions governed by professional codes of conduct?

The CIPR (Chartered Insitute of Public Relations) Professional Code of Conduct is of limited help on its own as it raises as many questions as answers.

“Not disclosing confidential information unless specific permission has been granted or if required or covered by law.”

The PRCA (Public Relations and Communications Association) Professional Code of Conduct is no clearer:

“Honour confidences received or given in the course of professional activity.”

Permission by who? How qualified is a PR professional to know if it is “required or covered by law” when it is an issue that is nuanced and complex where the answer might actually require a judgment in a court case? Always honour confidences?

It was an excellent and thought-provoking two days. Next year Crisis7 is in Gothenberg. I’d urge crisis communications practitioners to think about how they might be able to contribute or at the very least to attend and learn.

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