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28 January 2024 | 3 minutes

What to do in a crisis?

In any business or organization, a crisis or incident can suddenly occur. What to do when you are not prepared for this?
| Part 2 of a series of blogs on crisis communication.

What to do in a crisis?

In the ideal situation, of course, no unpleasant crisis or incident occurs. And when it does happen, you like to be prepared for it. However, a large proportion of companies are insufficiently prepared for a crisis. Then, when the crisis does occur, it is too late to think carefully about your best communication approach and work it all out and practice it. Later on, you will regret this firmly to say the least, but the consequences can also be greater. If only we had been better prepared” is a comment often heard among (former) directors, managers and heads of communications after a crisis or incident. We therefore recommend that in 2024 you should preventively look very carefully at crisis management and communications. Chances are, there is a lot to improve and practice. Do it. You 100% certainly won’t regret it later.

What if a crisis does occur that you are not prepared for?

The most important thing is that you take immediate action and communicate quickly. There is simply no time to first all facts and to investigate what happened. Anno 2024 the (social) media often knows within minutes that something is going on. Think of a major blaze. A major accident or a sudden evacuation. Most people then do what is asked of them (‘leave the building as quickly as possible’, ‘stay away’). But we also want to know very quickly what happened. For consumers, customers, neighbors, the media or anyone else: many people want to understand immediately what is going on.

By explaining what is going on yourself, you engage in sensemaking. Let people know what what is going on. You do that by answering very basic questions: what happened? What does this mean? What are you going to do now? And possibly: why did it happen? No more and no less. As a director or manager, it is important to clarify this as soon as possible. Otherwise, others will do it for you. If, as a company, you are not (yet) willing or able to explain what is going on, the (social) media really won’t wait for days until you do say something about it. Then they will ask an “expert,” who usually misses crucial information or even communicates something unfavorable to your company or organization. Or a politician or executive will speak up who may already have his opinion ready immediately.

If you don’t engage in sensemaking yourself, you run the risk of having to contend with incorrect information or an unwanted frame from someone else. You can avoid this by providing clarity on the main points yourself. Everyone will understand that you do not yet know everything and much is still unclear. So don’t pretend you don’t know everything.

Which message is useful?

Needless to say, it is important to have a clear message. In crisis management and crisis communication, your (existing) reputation also plays a crucial role. Research from Stanford University shows that the broader public consciously and unconsciously looks at two “scales”: empathy and competence. How to effectively communicate depends on the image that exists about you and your company or organization on these two scales.

Empathy is all about whether people believe you really care about the situation. Are you seriously committed to solving the problem (quickly) or not really? If you or your company have a reputation for being committed, then include lots of empathetic elements in your communication. Are you known for being very competent? Do people believe that you have the capabilities to solve a crisis or handle an incident well? Then be sure to include elements of that competence. If you score well in both areas – empathic and competent, in other words – you have the best situation. Above all, show that you are both involved and capable of solving the problem. 

In the next blog, we’ll take a closer look at how to be well-prepared, engaged and knowledgeable.