Crisis Communications Strategy

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According to Bernard Weiber’s research, locus of control refers to the perception of whether the crisis was caused by the organisation or the situation; stability whether the factors contributing to the crisis was predictable; and controllability whether the organisation could have acted to prevent it. Thus, if the crisis was caused by the organisation, was something which the organisation could reasonably have predicted to occur, and was within the ability of the organisation to prevent, then attribution of responsibility would be high. 

Depending on the cause of the crisis and the extent to which the organisation is responsible/ culpable, the crisis communicator can conceptually adopt 1 of 4 crisis response strategies.  Where there is no culpability, the organisation can either deny responsibility or redirect responsibility, while in scenarios where the organisation has culpability, the organisation can either diffuse/ share responsibilityor accept responsibility. The key in any of these strategies, or any other variations of them, is that the crisis communication Message must target at least 1, or all 3, of the dimensions.

Deny Strategy. In this strategy, investigations would have determined that the organisation was not responsible for the crisis and that the exact cause is unknown. Unfortunately, due to false or malicious attribution, the organisation is perceived by stakeholders to be culpable. The crisis communication Message in this scenario must therefore (a) directly refute the source of the false (or malicious) attribution; and (b) demonstrate to the stakeholders how the crisis was caused by an external party or event, was something that the organisation could not have predicted, and that there was nothing that the organisation could have reasonably done to prevent it. The key focus of this strategy is show that the organisation is also a “victim” of the crisis.

Redirect Responsibility. This second strategy is usually employed in scenarios where the cause is not the organisation but another entity. Similar to the former scenario, false or malicious attribution have made stakeholders perceive the organisation as culpable.  Thus, the crisis communication Message would be to state the facts surrounding the crisis to guide stakeholders to the “correct” cause of the crisis. This entails providing verifiable evidence that the cause was external, that the external entity had prior knowledge of the potential for the crisis, and that the organisation was powerless to prevent the crisis. In this redirect strategy, the organisation must explicitly guide stakeholders to hold another entity responsible. The key focus of this strategy, similar to the former, is show that the organisation is also a “victim” of the crisis.

Diffuse/ Share Responsibility. In this third strategy, investigations would have shown that the organisation was partly responsible for the crisis. Thus, in this scenario, the crisis communication Message would be to guide stakeholders’ perception to the fact that the crisis was triggered by an external entity, that an external entity’s actions had prevented the organisation from foreseeing the crisis, and that both parties’ failure to act contributed to the crisis. The key focus of this strategy is demonstrate the complexity of the crisis and that the organisation, on its own, could not have foreseen or prevented it. 

Accept Responsibility. In this fourth strategy, investigations would have shown that the organisation was fully responsible for the crisis. Here, the crisis communication Message would be to accept responsibility for the crisis and focus on providing information to help the stakeholders deal with their anger towards the organisation. Common tactics used in this strategy are punishing the perpetrator, seeking forgiveness from stakeholders or even compensating the victims. The key focus of this strategy is to shift stakeholders’ emotions along from anger to neutrality and eventually to sympathy.

In all of the above strategies, crisis communicators should incorporate Messages to reinforce and build upon the espoused Vision and/ or Values of the organisation.  Done properly, crisis are excellent opportunities to enhance brand value.

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