The biggest crisis story in the last two months was, undoubtedly, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which lost contact with traffic controllers on March 8, 2013. It led to the largest ever multinational search and rescue effort, but what was remarkable in the initial stages of the effort was the astonishing level of confusion and conflicting information emerging from both Malaysian Airlines headquarters, as well as the Malaysian government.
The airline’s reputation will take years to recover, if at all, and the communications debacle surrounding the flight highlights the importance of having a communications plan in place, tested and ready, to respond to such crises. As with everything else, Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can make crisis communications more bearable and much more focused than would be the case otherwise.
Today’s world is said to be hyper-connected: News and information travel in real time around the world. Typically, most people will turn to websites or social media and microsites for the latest information about a company or a developing event. In the event of a crisis, this is even more acute, as social media typically are the first stop for anyone looking for mentions of a developing or reported crisis or event of serious magnitude.
What organizations need, therefore, is a well-tuned, tested strategy for crisis communication: A pre-set series of steps and information packages that ensure the information released to the public is both managed and relevant. This is where Malaysian Airlines failed miserably in the case of flight MH370.
The first step in developing a crisis communications plan is to constitute a Preparedness Team. This team is responsible for determining the policies that govern the information content to be released to the public in the event of a crisis. A basic database or spreadsheet can then be used to classify the relevant content against the sort of crisis to be addressed using that content template. In addition, it should also include the level of staff approval required to release the information, as well as the person responsible for making the information public.
The outcome of this step is therefore a list of members of the Crisis Preparedness Team, and their very first output is a categorized list showing the possible crises, as well as the type of content to be released to the public in the event of each category of crisis, and who is responsible for releasing that information.
The second step is when ICT becomes very vital. It involves a determination of the methods to use to communicate the information that is the output of step 1. Typically, this involves using various ICT media to communicate with the outside world. It is very important that this communication is focused and, if possible, restricted to one main medium that acts as the “master source” of information, with all other communication channels referencing the master source. This ensures that the public does not receive conflicting and contradictory, not to mention misleading, information from multiple sources within the same company.
The most popular method of centralizing the dissemination of crisis information is the “Dark Website”. A dark website is a webpage prepared well in advance of any crisis, and which is normally invisible to the public. When a crisis hits, the dark website is rapidly updated and then published and made visible to the public. It should contain the very latest news and information about the crisis, and should be the repository of all company releases and statements about that crisis.
Most importantly, the dark site must contain information that answers the 5Ws of communication: Who, what, why, where, and when. Dark websites can also be modified to include social media versions, like a Facebook page containing only information about the crisis and nothing else.
An optional step is to prepare and launch “paid search” using popular search engines. Paid search is when search engines like Google are paid to redirect queries about the given event, to the dark website prepared in advance. This is vital, as search engines are one of the first places that the public will go to for information about a developing crisis.
The ICT department, together with the Crisis Preparedness Team, must prepare in advance for several crisis eventualities that can affect the organization, and then work with search engine companies to prepare – in advance – possible search engine strategies that can be activated rapidly when a crisis hits.
Finally, the company must create a Crisis Response Team. This team has the job of engaging with the public – online and offline but always in real-time – in order, primarily, to create trust in the company’s efforts in response to the crisis – which in turn serves to protect and even enhance the company’s brand image.
The Crisis Response Team must demonstrate openness, honesty and transparency in answering questions both on social media and in person. They should continually reference the information available on the Dark site, and must then fill the information vacuum so common during times of crisis.
Research has shown that in such times, people need to hear the same bit of information four or five times to believe its accuracy, and the Crisis Response Team needs to make use of such techniques to ensure that the organisation’s version of events becomes the accepted and trusted version.
The author is an ICT consultant working for Saudi Telecom Corporation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.