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Crisis Communication

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The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to crises across multiple spheres, and this has often caused panic or confusion, prompting behaviors that exhaust resources and spread infection. The pandemic has also changed the way businesses and organizations operate, including how they communicate with employees and other stakeholders [1]. It stands to reason that the need for communication is more than usual in a time of crisis. However, there is a delicate balance between addressing the individual’s communication needs and overwhelming them [2].

What defines a crisis? Coombs (2010) represents a crisis as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” [3]. Many may find this definition leaves a vague and simplistic impression. The critical notion of understanding is that a crisis is an unexpected event. It can create significant safety issues (as well as property damage – depending on the type of emergency) by disrupting the normal operational processes of an organization or society [3].

There are six major distinguishable phases within a crisis; these phases are: (1) Warning, (2) Risk Assessment, (3) Response, (4) Management, (5) Resolution, and (6) Recovery) [3, 4]. Crisis communication, therefore, plays a vital role in the life cycle of the crisis. Aspects that will vary throughout the problem include communication goals, required information, constraints, challenges, methods, channels, audiences, and messages. It is the stage of the situation that ultimately dictates the audience’s requirement and need for information and dictates the organization’s response providing the warning. [3, 4].

Because boundaries between stages can overlap, communication plays a vital role in ascertaining which stage of the crisis is developing. The warning phase emphasizes the importance of preparedness, according to Coombs (2010). Inevitable problems have particular warning stages, which give the organization time to prepare in advance. Unfortunately, some crises do not possess a distinct warning phase; the example used by Coombs (2010) is the case of an aircraft malfunction causing hundreds of individuals’ death. Coombs (2010) and Arokiasamy (2019) further note that “regardless of the length of the warning phase, effective communication and incident notification are essential to protect people’s health and safety during a major crisis. The warning phase also requires a response that includes notifying specific constituents” [3, 4].

In the Risk Assessment stage, we calculate and address the magnitude of the damage caused by the crisis. The affected organization identifies the various stakeholders involved in the crisis and its risk to its brand image or reputation.

The response phase encompasses the crisis management and communication strategies and their early implementation; this includes the media, public, and all relevant stakeholders’ response. As the organization moves into the Management Phase, the attempt is to manage the crisis as it evolves into a catastrophic incident for the organization or begins to be managed effectively by key crisis managers and communicators. Senior leadership decides how the crisis will be handled and will develop strategies to deal with the crisis’s wake [4].

In the Resolution Phase, the crisis experiences its resolution. The organization compensates stakeholders for any losses and assigns responsibility, where appropriate. Entering the Recovery Phase, the organization rebuilds its reputation to regain its stakeholders’ trust [4].

We understand crisis communication as “the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis” [4]. Crisis communication has different phases concerning the various stages of a given crisis. For instance, in pre-crisis, crisis communication revolves around collecting information about risks, decision-making about managing a potential crisis, and providing individuals involved in the crisis management process with training. The goal is to collect and process information for the crisis team to create and disseminate messages to individuals outside of the crisis management team. While in contrast, the post-crisis phase deals with the crisis management effort’s dissection, communicating the necessary changes to individuals and providing follow-up crisis messages as required [3, 4].

Communicating in a Crisis

Arokiasamy (2019) identifies five key recommendations when communicating in a crisis, they included:

  1. Plan for success by having sufficient pre-installed notification protocols and

communication plans in place. These will directly impact the appropriateness and overall success of the response to the warning phase’s needs.

  1. Prepare the messages in advance. Create notifications for different warning scenarios for prompt and practical usage. Communication should be consistent with the

commitment to take appropriate action to increase readiness as a potential emergency loom. Communication should also build upon advanced training and preparedness steps.

  • Monitor the chatter. Successful communication relies on “listening” as much as

“talking.” Focus on tools and processes that increase or confirm the readiness for success and mitigate crisis impact position people and resources to maximize safety, operational continuity, and successful management.

  1. Keep the messages simple. Consider the readability of messages and the amount of processing required to understand them. Announcements during the warning phase need to be direct and straightforward. Things get easily and quickly confusing when we start thinking about dangerous threats.
  2. Words matter. Choose the words carefully. The wording in the notification messages will either motivate the audience to act competently and appropriately or frighten them and create undue stress, confusion, and dysfunction.

Not surprisingly, some of the best practices in crisis communication have come from the aviation industry. Arokiasamy (2019) noted the following ten points used in the aviation when communicating a crisis:

  1. Disseminate Information Quickly and Transparently
  2. Take Supportive Action
  3. Communicate with Compassion
  4. Develop a Social Media Strategy
  5. Stay on top with Updates
  6. Assign an Executive Spokesperson
  7. Victims First in Media Statements
  8. Meet the Media Needs
  9. Coordinate with Governments and Endorsements
  10. Ride out the Storm

Adapting the Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Developed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese in 1975, the Uncertainty Reduction Theory (UTR) comprises three developmental stages: entry, personal, and exit. These stages elucidate how “strangers communicate to reduce uncertainty about each other during initial encounters” [5]. In their original work, Berger and Calabrese (1975) described eight maxims to help understand the process by which strangers come to understand better and predict each others’ actions, beliefs, and needs. [5]. These truisms include:

  1. As verbal communication increases, uncertainty decreases.
  2. Increases in non-verbal expression cause a decrease in uncertainty as uncertainty decreases, non-verbal expression increases.
  3. Information-seeking behaviour increases with increased uncertainty and decreases with decreased uncertainty.
  4. The intimacy of communication increases as uncertainty decreases.
  5. High levels of uncertainty produce high levels of reciprocity.
  6. Personal similarities reduce uncertainty.
  7. Liking decreases when uncertainty increases and increases when uncertainty decreases.
  8. Having shared networks/ mutual friends decreases uncertainty.
[5]

Grace and Tham (2021) recommend UTR as “a normative framework for crisis communication that offers, on one hand, requirements to guide crisis communication during response, management, and recovery phases and, on the other hand, benchmarks for evaluating the progress and effectiveness of crisis communication campaigns”.

Entry Stage of URT

In this stage, strangers use familiar communication scripts to clarify necessary information about each other when meeting for the first time. In the same way, an organization can reduce uncertainty by “leveraging familiar protocols and ritualized crisis communication practices at the onset of a crisis” [5].

Grace and Tham (2021) highlight that there is an increase in uncertainty in the course of the entry phase, accompanied by an increase in verbal communication (Maxim 1), non-verbal expression (Maxim 2), reciprocity (Maxim 5), and information-seeking behaviours (Maxim 3). In contrast, intimacy experiences a decrease as procedural norms and situational demands limit the scope of information shared between strangers (Maxim 4). Therefore, the guidelines for crisis communication in the entry stage should include:

  • Increase communication frequency to explain events precipitating the crisis.
  • Create opportunities for user information seeking and interactive communication.
  • Respond to uncertainty at the onset of a crisis by emphasizing standard protocols and messaging. [5]

During the personal stage of URT, Grace and Tham (2021) explain that “strangers rely less on commonplaces and begin to discuss personal attitudes, values, and beliefs.” Characterized by decreases in uncertainty, resulting in reductions in information seeking (Maxim 3) and reciprocity (Maxim 5), the personal stage also experiences an increase in intimacy (Maxim 4) and liking (Maxim 7). Following the explanation of recent events and the emphasis on existing procedures at the onset of a crisis, an organization can shift to recognizing users’ service needs and experiences by responding to a modification in service protocols to decreased uncertainty in augmenting risk management operation continuity.

Grace and Tham (2021) note the following guidelines for crisis communication for the personal stage:

  • The creation of interactive opportunities that allow users to discuss individual attitudes, values, and beliefs about the crisis.
  • Recognize uncertainty and, when possible, modify service protocols in response to user needs, experiences, and ethical beliefs.
  • Anticipate decreased user uncertainty, information seeking, and reciprocal communication but increased expectations for service that address diverse user needs, experiences, and ethical beliefs.

Lastly, in the exit stage of URT, Grace and Tham (2021) suggest that “the now-acquainted strangers determine arrangements for future interaction or avoidance.” For an organization, this stage encompasses communication that would otherwise return services to “business as usual” [5] or the prolongation of modified protocols that “define a new normal during the recovery phase and beyond” [5].

The exit stage involves an increase in uncertainty that, comparable to the entry stage, increases verbal communication (Maxim 1), non-verbal expression (Maxim 2), information-seeking behaviours (Maxim 3), and reciprocity (Maxim 5) during the conversion to return to normal operations [5].

The guidelines suggested for crisis communication in the exit stage include:

  • An increase in communication frequency to outline the future new normal.
  • The creation of sustainable infrastructures for user information seeking and feedback.
  • Respond to uncertainty by outlining long-term service modifications and protocols.
[5]

In conclusion, during the COVID-19 pandemic, crisis communication has shown the need for further investigation into URT in terms of an applied framework for guiding uncertainty reduction during an unprecedented crisis. Adapting URT shows promise for technical communicators when designing and evaluating crisis communication campaigns in the face of managing the uncertainty between individuals attempting to access services and organizations trying to manage risk and ensure operational continuity. Often, managing fear during a crisis simply involves recognizing the causes of the anxiety and providing mechanisms for guiding behaviour in times of uncertainty through effective crisis communication [1, 5].

References

  1. Amant K. Creating Scripts for Crisis Communication: COVID-19 and Beyond. Journal of Business & Technical Communication [Internet]. 2021 Jan [cited 2021 Feb 6];35(1):126–33. Available from: https://search-ebscohostcom.ezproxy.tru.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=147065519&site=eds-live&scope=site
  1. Hodder A. Crisis Communication: How to Get It Right. Plans & Trusts [Internet]. 2020 Sep [cited 2021 Feb 6];38(5):18–22. Available from: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.tru.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=145684802&site=eds-live&scope=site
  2. Coombs T. Parameters for Crisis Communication. In: The Handbook of Crisis Communication. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc; 2010. p. 17–53.
  3. Arokiasamy L, Kwaider S, Balaraman RA. Best Practices for Crisis Communication: A Qualitative Study. Global Business & Management Research [Internet]. 2019 Apr 2 [cited 2021 Feb 6];11(2):141–50. Available from: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.tru.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=136670774&site=eds-live&scope=site
  4. Grace R, Tham JCK. Adapting Uncertainty Reduction Theory for Crisis Communication: Guidelines for Technical Communicators. Journal of Business & Technical Communication [Internet]. 2021 Jan [cited 2021 Feb 6];35(1):110–7. Available from: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.tru.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=147065516&site=eds-live&scope=site

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Chris Farnady

Chris Farnady

Chris is a graduate of Loyalist College’s Primary Care Paramedic program (Bancroft, ON), Durham College’s (Oshawa, ON) Advance Care Paramedic and currently pursuing his Bachelor of Health Science from Thompson Rivers University. Chris began his prehospital care career in 1997 working as an EMR in Alberta’s oil and gas industry and has enjoyed the privilege of working as a Primary Care and Advanced Care Paramedic in Ontario, Northern Manitoba and Alberta. In April 2018 Chris accepted a position with Advanced Paramedic Ltd. and returned to Northern Alberta as an Advanced Care Flight Paramedic for Alberta Health Services’ transport medicine program. In his time away from work, Chris enjoys being at home with his wife and two children. Chris can be reached for comment at chris.farnady@gmail.com.

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