Being an Effective Communicator in a Crisis

Article 6 min
Military operations are an inherently dangerous business. Forces can organize, train and equip to mitigate these dangers, but there will always be the potential for bad things to happen. When events go badly and the various audiences begin to scrutinize actions and words, the commanders will look to you to determine the best way to communicate accurately and honestly. Follow these rules to communicate effectively during a crisis.

In a crisis, the last thing you want to do is make a mistake in how you communicate. Familiarize yourself with the rules and guidelines that will help you stay on the right path.

Rule 1. Partner with the public

People and communities have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives, their property and the things they value. You want an informed and collaborative public.

How do we get there?

Involve the community BEFORE important decisions are made. Clarify that the factors that are important to the public are important to you. Know that they will hold you accountable: act accordingly.

Rule 2. Listen to and communicate with the public

Effective risk communication is a two-way activity. Your audience needs to feel compassion, trust and credibility and may not be able to process things like mortality statistics and risk assessment.

How do we get there?

Use social media, discussions and surveys, so all parties with a stake in the issue can be heard. Identify with your audience and try to put yourself in their place.

Rule 3. Protect your most valuable asset: Trust

Be honest, frank and open. Trust and credibility are almost impossible to regain if lost.

How do we get there?

Stating your credentials won’t guarantee credibility - you’ll need to earn it. Avoid the impression that anything is being hidden by sharing as much as possible. You may have to discuss worst case estimates, but don't minimize or exaggerate risk.

Rule 4. No Squabbling

Few things can make risk communication more difficult than conflicts or public disagreements with other credible sources.

How do we get there?

Before a crisis occurs, devote effort and resources to the slow, hard work of building bridges. Use credible and authoritative intermediaries and trustworthy sources such as university scientists, physicians, citizen advisory groups, trusted local officials and opinion leaders.

Rule 5. Work with the media, but be aware of their goals

The media are generally more interested in politics than in risk, more interested in simplicity than in complexity and more interested in wrongdoing, blame and danger than in safety.

How do we get there?

Establish long-term relationships and provide supporting information and background material on complex risk issues. Agree in advance about the specific topic of the interview and prepare a limited number of positive key messages in advance. Say only those things that you are willing to have on the record and never speculate. Follow up with praise or criticism as warranted.

Rule 6. Speak clearly and with compassion

In low trust, high concern situations, empathy and caring often carry more weight than numbers and technical facts. You can empathize and sympathize, but you don't need to accept blame if it's not your fault. Maintain detachment but keep your humanity.

How do we get there?

Use non-technical language and strive for brevity. Graphics, pictorials and anecdotes are a great way to make technical data more understandable. Avoid unfeeling language about deaths, injuries and illnesses. Validate emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger and helplessness. Avoid risk comparisons that ignore distinctions that people consider important. Include discussion of actions that are under way and acknowledge that any illness, injury or death is a tragedy. Promise only what can be delivered and then follow through. Be sensitive to local norms, such as speech and dress.

Rule 7. Plan carefully and evaluate performance as you go

Different goals, audiences, and media require different risk communication strategies.

How do we get there?

Begin with clear, explicit objectives such as providing information and reassurance to the public. Involve stakeholders in dialogue and joint problem solving. Know the strengths and weaknesses of technical information and recruit the right spokesperson for presenting information about risks. Pretest messages and then carefully evaluate efforts and learn from mistakes. When you can, praise your team—you're all working incredibly hard.

It's not possible to work non-stop, so take advantage of public partnerships whenever you can to ease your load!

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