Waiting is the Hardest Part: Gathering Information in a Crisis
The official confirmation just hours ago that Flight 370 landed in the Indian Ocean brought to a numbing end the extended initial information gathering period that had so many people worldwide clinging to new developments daily. Many of us held out hope for a miraculous discovery of survival, some outlined conspiracy theories, a few envisioned a Lost-like television drama and others, like my husband, an airline pilot, assessed the facts from a technical perspective and compared notes with colleagues. Even with today’s news, the story is far from over; more information will be sought out for many months to come.
Monday’s news was delivered by Malaysian Prime Minister Najim Razak with clarity, evident sadness and clear exhaustion. The last three weeks have been fueled by speculation, desperation for information and a rabid hunger for answers around the clock. In another tragic example, the Washington State mudslide recovery and investigations will see similar demands on officials for quick answers and new developments.
What this extended period of time – waiting, hoping, questioning – demonstrates is that while communicating during a crisis, organizations, executives and rescue/law enforcement officials must exercise patience and keep an eye toward resolution over time. There are rarely quick fixes to significant crises. As crisis counselors, we specialize in strategies to handle the intense first 48 minutes and 48 hours of a crisis, but the days, weeks, months and, sometimes, years following a major event can be equally important. In many cases, these prolonged periods are more difficult to predict and assess.
Each crisis, be it a tragic disaster, reputation-damaging event, product quality or credibility issue, has its unique challenges and a full backstory that is rarely told. The decisions that must be made by organizations in these harrowing moments are complex and fraught with risks. One striking controversy CNN reported on Monday was Malaysia Airline’s decision to send passengers’ families text messages confirming their worst fears. While largely viewed as insensitive and impersonal, the fact is, the text format may have been the fastest way to get the information to families firsthand before news coverage broke the story.
The hunger for information NOW, especially in our data-mining, content-obsessed culture, has the power to mutate the truth and derail focus. The communications challenge for officials and executives is twofold: They must satisfy legitimate information needs of the task at hand (in this case, initially for the potential rescue and recovery of passengers and later for the families of passengers) while continuing to thoroughly investigate the issue. On the other hand, they must address the public’s need to know, set the record straight and tell their side of the story. This “hot zone” is a difficult position for even the most skilled communicators. Sensitivity, compassion and prioritization of messaging are required at all times, and throughout the lifecycle of the crisis.
Tips on Communicating During the Information Gathering Period
- Show compassion and respect for human life and welfare.
- Strive to develop a communications strategy encompassing the entire crisis lifecycle based on what is known and what can likely be anticipated. Scenario plan.
- Demonstrate measured urgency.
- Prepare for a marathon and strive for endurance.
- Prioritize your audiences.
- Maintain control of the timing of your communications.
- Avoid the temptation to over-communicate for the sake of appearances. When you do communicate, make it meaningful. Do not overpromise.
- Avoid under-communicating. Silence will fuel speculation. Instead, be honest with what you know, what you are working toward, and demonstrate that you care.
- Keep the voice of your brand credible – stick to the facts, provide backup. Do not speculate or address hypothetical questions.
- Collaborate with specialists, authorities and industry partners: take a non-competitive approach.
- Continue to assess the effectiveness of your messaging throughout the lifecycle of a crisis. Messaging needs will change as the situation evolves.
- Be open to change, new approaches and acknowledging improvement. Do not let pride lock you in a box.
- Seek triggers and pivot points to move your message toward firmer ground.
- Anticipate impatience for new developments by media and stakeholders.
- Keep communications open and flowing internally and externally.
- Keep your team on task, assess internal processes along the way and seek continuous improvement.