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Crisis communication needs practice

September 20, 2018


While we will never be able to predict quite what will happen when a crisis hits, practising crisis communication is extremely important. At Fira, we organised an industrial accident drill in May at a location in Tikkurila in Vantaa, and the drill also included crisis communication.

The occupational safety team began planning the drill with the brand team and management six weeks before the event. The Central Uusimaa Rescue Department were soon involved too. However, the occupational safety team kept the details of the drill under wraps so that those participating in it would have as realistic an experience as possible.

Thinking on your feet in a crisis

The day of the drill began by recapping the programme with all the parties involved. Everyone was clear about their role and timings.

The drill involved the fall of a 70 kg mannequin and its rescue from a safety harness, rope work, crisis management and communication.

The drill began at noon with the mannequin falling from a roof. Within the first 30 minutes, the team on site had completed the initial rescue, the Rescue Department had initiated first aid and the Fira management and brand team responsible for crisis communication had reached the site.

The next 30 minutes were the most critical from the crisis communication perspective. At the same time as the situation progressed, we established what had happened to whom, whether the next of kin had been informed, and wrote the first press release, which was also an invitation to the “media”. We also monitored social media and responded to messages sent by “active members of the public”, whom we had asked to participate in the drill.

As soon as the “next of kin” had been informed, we issued a press release and invited the “media” to a press conference attended by those appointed for the purpose, either students in the field or those who had been involved in scripting the drill. The press conference was held 75 minutes after the drill began. A fast reaction time was possible because we had prepared by updating our press release templates, but whenever possible the first press conference in the case of a serious accident should usually be held within one hour of the event.

Internal crisis communication is vital

Crisis communication tends to focus on external communication, which is naturally important for the company brand. However, internal communication will help speed up the community’s recovery from a crisis.

It is crucial that the company management and communications team are kept updated on the situation so that they have the necessary information to manage the crisis and deal with the media and concerned members of the public. At the same time, it is vital to be able to form an accurate picture of the situation so that at no point is false information released.

It is a good idea to agree an internal code word so that the right personnel can be alerted in the middle of an important meeting by email or messaging services. It should also be agreed beforehand how the different parties communicate with each other. Fira had such instructions in place, but there still a few glitches in internal crisis communication.

We observed that breakdowns in communication happened quickly, which made it suddenly impossible to understand the situation. We came up with practical development ideas to improve the communication chain, which were considered immediately after the drill. One specific improvement would make all the difference: everyone must remember always to acknowledge receipt of every message.

What did we learn?

The best lessons were connected with further improving collaboration, and without such a drill, we would never have tackled this challenge. Although theoretically the division of duties should be clear to all, everyone involved in the drill might subsequently reflect on how to work even more efficiently and systematically next time.

At the communications department, we witnessed the chaotic nature of the situation at first hand, which helped us prioritise our crisis actions: be prepared, keep calm and communicate as quickly as you can, keeping messages simple, clear and accurate.

We also realised how important it was to train our entire personnel on the principles of good crisis communication.

Five rules of crisis communication

  1. Keep crisis communication instructions and templates updated and at the ready.
  2. Create a checklist for all involved in crisis communication where they can check that all necessary steps have been taken during and after the incident.
  3. Remember internal communication, especially between crisis management, the parties affected and the communications department.
  4. Keep calm and don’t rush, whatever the situation.
  5. Be as open and transparent as the situation allows.

What is a crisis and what does crisis communication mean?

A crisis is a situation in which normal management measures and resources are not enough.

Crisis communication and management aim to prevent crises, contain them when they happen, give the organisation space to work and, most importantly, return the organisation to normal after the crisis.

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