Crisis communication is the kind of risk communication you do when both “outrage” and “hazard” are high. Something has just happened that genuinely endangers people, or that threatens to endanger them in the not-too-distant future. They are appropriately fearful about what might happen; they may also be angry or miserable about what has happened already. In other kinds of risk communication, the goal may be to arouse more alarm about serious hazards or to calm people down about minor ones; in crisis communication, the goal is to help people bear their feelings (their outrage) and cope effectively with serious hazards.

Interest in crisis communication has focused on six areas. The six are listed below — not in order of importance; they’re all important. I have listed them in order from the ones that never get missed to the ones that usually get missed.

1. Information content.

What do we know about the crisis, what do we want people to know, and how do we communicate it effectively?

This is different for every crisis, of course, but you can plan in advance for the crises you can predict. It’s possible to do a good job or not such a good job on information content — Vincent Covello’s superb work on message mapping is at the forefront. It’s possible, even common, to decide not to tell people things that in hindsight they clearly should have been told. But nobody forgets to think about what to say and how to say it well.

2. Logistics/media.

How do we actually get our content into the hands (and hopefully the minds) of our audiences?

This involves everything from how to handle a blizzard of inbound telephone calls to when to use paid ads versus “free media” to how much photocopy paper to stockpile. It also includes critical questions of internal communication logistics: Do the firefighters and the cops share a radio frequency? There is a long history of neglecting these sorts of issues, but since 9/11 they are getting serious attention. One of the best sources is a CD-ROM called “Emergency Risk Communication CDCynergy,” produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

3. Audience assessment.

Who do we need to reach, what do they think already, and how should this affect what we say?

The biggest progress in crisis communication over the past few years has been the growing recognition that audiences are not all the same and are not blank slates. Their pre-existing knowledge, values, and emotions matter, and it’s very difficult to talk to them effectively without starting where they start. Some of the best work here is the research on “mental models” by Granger Morgan and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University.

4. Audience involvement.

How do we make our communications meaningfully two-way, and how do we keep our audiences active rather than passive?

The data are clearer and clearer on the importance of audience involvement. As psychiatrists and soldiers have long recognized, action binds anxiety; people who are doing things to protect themselves and help their neighbors are much less vulnerable to terror, panic, or denial than people who remain in the passive victim role. Just as important, authorities who involve the public in their crisis management plans are rewarded with higher credibility and greater compliance … not to mention better plans.

While these truths are now well-established, implementation has been spotty at best. All too often, those in charge prefer the public to stay out of their way and just let them manage the crisis. Much more can be done to make better use of citizen volunteers, to share crisis management dilemmas and seek guidance on how best to resolve them, to offer people menus of things they can do, to recruit the public’s competence and resilience in the face of crisis.

5. “Metamessaging.”

This jargony word is the best I can come up with to describe all the content of crisis communications other than information content: how reassuring to be, how confident to sound, how to address emotion, etc. As a rule, crisis planners do not consider these questions explicitly; instead they rely on instinct. And their instinct tends to be systematically wrong: over-reassuring, over-confident, inhumanly unemotional and intolerant of the emotions of others.

I believe the lowest-hanging fruit in crisis communication is improving our metamessaging. The key strategies here are counterintuitive and uncomfortable, individually and organizationally. But they are learnable. Some organizations seem never to learn them, even after mishandling a crisis and paying a high price; the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, for example, only convinced Exxon that public opinion is unfair to huge oil companies. But other organizations have achieved remarkable improvements in their crisis metamessaging. In the U.S., the CDC learned key lessons from anthrax that it later deployed on SARS, West Nile Virus, and other crises. Internationally, the World Health Organization learned lessons from SARS that it put to superb use with avian flu.

6. Self-assessment.

How will our own values, emotions, and political problems affect our crisis communication? What are we likely to get wrong? What are the internal sources of resistance to getting it right, and how can we counter them?

As an issue, this one is barely on my clients’ radar screens. Interestingly, I have found more willingness to consider the “What are we doing wrong?” question than the more fundamental “Why do we keep doing it wrong?” question. But like their audiences, crisis managers and crisis communicators are not blank slates. We, too, come to the task loaded down with our own cognitive, emotional, ideological, and political baggage. Self-assessment is the most efficient path to improvement.

In May, AIHA will release my new DVD on crisis communication (done jointly with my wife and colleague Jody Lanard M.D.). In a sense it’s a sequel to my previous AIHA videos on risk communication. But it stands on its own, organized around 25 key crisis communication recommendations — most of them about metamessaging. Here they are:

  • Don’t over-reassure.
  • Put reassuring information in subordinate clauses.
  • Err on the alarming side.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty.
  • Share dilemmas.
  • Acknowledge opinion diversity.
  • Be willing to speculate.
  • Don’t overdiagnose or overplan for panic.
  • Don’t aim for zero fear.
  • Don’t forget emotions other than fear.
  • Don’t ridicule the public’s emotions.
  • Legitimize people’s fears.
  • Tolerate early over-reactions.
  • Establish your own humanity.
  • Tell people what to expect.
  • Offer people things to do.
  • Let people choose their own actions.
  • Ask more of people.
  • Acknowledge errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
  • Apologize often for errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
  • Be explicit about “anchoring frames.”
  • Be explicit about changes in official opinion, prediction, or policy.
  • Don’t lie, and don’t tell half-truths.
  • Aim for total candor and transparency.
  • Be careful with risk comparisons.

As reporters who cover crises are well aware, this is not how most organizations handle a crisis — not unless they think about it in advance; make a conscious, counterintuitive decision that that’s the way to go; then convince their management, train their staff, and build it into their plans. It is how risk communication specialists (at least this one) think organizations should handle a crisis.

Traducción en Español (PDF)

Copyright © 2004 by Peter M. Sandman