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Handling crisis communication in the digital age

February 1, 2013

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When a crisis occurs these days, some people may first hear about it on Facebook or Twitter and use those sources to obtain additional news and views about the incident and response efforts.

For employers, the rise of digital communication requires a change in how they communicate with the public, stakeholders and employees after a major incident. Although the purpose of crisis communication remains the same – to manage information flow and the reputation of the business – the level of corporate control is now lower and the information demand is higher.

“Even a decade ago you designated a spokesperson for your company and you could actually control your message pretty well,” said Keri Stephens, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Now it’s just so easy for anybody to post information, and they get access to that information pretty quickly, and it gets out of the company very quickly as well.”

Employers, formerly in control of the message, are now part of an ongoing dialogue.

Pamela Walaski, president of Pittsburgh-based consulting firm JC Safety & Environmental Inc., described it as a two-way conversation in which anyone can weigh in, and the only message you control is the one you put out directly.

The lack of control can be unnerving, but her advice is to embrace the change.

“No organization can afford to turn away from the relevance and the importance of social media in our culture right now,” she said.

Instant message

Walaski said every employer should have a crisis communication plan that answers three questions:

  1. What are we going to say?
  2. Who is authorized to say it?
  3. How are we going to say it?

While not abandoning traditional methods such as press conferences and interviews with reporters, the plan should address distributing information online, from the company website to social media channels such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

“The issue that we’re all beginning to come to grips with is social media is the way that many of our audiences are getting their information,” Walaski said. “That’s where they’re going to be looking for their news. That’s where organizations can then provide that information to their audiences about what’s happening.”

Stephens said the immediacy of new technology has vastly increased the speed at which people expect to receive information and the size of the audience. She advised consistency in messaging even when addressing multiple groups, and cautioned against releasing facts that conflict with court documents.

“If that happens today, that’s going to be very easy for people to pick up on. Anything that’s public, somebody’s going to find,” Stephens said.

Another important concept is to communicate frequently. As Walaski said, “In the middle of a crisis, people want information.” Regardless of the medium, she recommended “being honest and forthright about what’s going on and saying what you know is correct even if you don’t have a lot to say.” Sometimes that may mean simply telling people, “This is what we know right now.”

Another tip from Walaski is to tell people what they can do to help. “In a crisis or in an emergency, that anxiety that we feel, those high-level emotions that we feel are best tempered by giving us something to do,” she said.

She gave the example of people going to websites during a public health emergency or natural disaster for information on making a donation. “Other organizations can use that for safety-related emergencies that occur,” Walaski added.

Employee communication during a safety crisis

Members of the public are not the only ones seeking information during or after a crisis; employees will be looking to understand what is going on as well.

Andrew Binder, assistant professor in the department of communication at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, noted that workers may follow updates from their employer on social media.

“I think employers should really be as open and honest with their employees as they are with the general public in terms of interacting with social media,” he said.

In the event of a safety crisis such as a fatality, safety professionals often are the ones speaking directly with the workforce in safety meetings or having one-on-one conversations on the shop floor. Some also help with the company’s public response to the safety issue.

“They may not be the message deliverers themselves,” Walaski said of safety professionals, “but they’re often advising them what to say and how to say it. And if they have that tool in their toolbox, some knowledge about crisis communications concepts, then they’re in a much better place to give that advice.”

Another consideration is that safety professionals may have to speak to the authorities or local community about the incident.

Fay Feeney, safety consultant and CEO of Risk for Good, a risk advisory firm based in Hermosa Beach, CA, pointed to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion and Deepwater Horizon oil spill as cases in which actions related to safety came under scrutiny from the government and media.

“During [a] disaster, that is when our professional reputation becomes vulnerable,” she said, adding that media training may help prepare safety professionals to speak publicly.

Message and medium

Regarding technology, Binder emphasized thinking strategically about how to use different platforms. For example, Twitter – which limits messages to 140 characters – may be good for brief updates or linking to mainstream news articles quoting company representatives. At the same time, traditional news outlets are valued by people seeking more in-depth information.

A study conducted by Binder gives a glimpse into how people communicate about safety and hazards in a large-scale crisis. He looked at how people in the United States used Twitter to make sense of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and found that initial “tweets” did not contain much analysis, but within two weeks, people began putting risk issues in context. However, by then interest in the disaster had waned.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Communication (Vol. 6, No. 2), also backs up his recommendation not to forgo traditional media. More than half of the tweets in the sample he analyzed included hyperlinks to other websites, 64 percent of which were traditional news sources.

Binder said the lesson for businesses is to take the lead on providing information during a crisis – otherwise rumors can gain traction, creating a communication crisis in addition to the safety crisis at hand.

Social media is “unprecedented in terms of the abilities of these organizations to get out there with an explanation first,” Binder said. “And so I think that they have a huge responsibility to seize upon that and be open and honest and transparent in how they communicate about it in the immediate aftermath of whatever the crisis was.”

Building trust and credibility

Although crisis communication deals with the response to an event, experts advise not thinking in terms of “before, during and after.” Instead, organizations should be engaged in an ongoing effort to develop trust and credibility with their audience. “When you’re in the middle of a crisis is not the time to say ‘Let’s start a Twitter feed,’” Walaski said.

In an article on lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Walaski noted that one common stereotype is that corporations care more about profits than people. Counteracting that image on an individual level, she said, starts with interactions in times of calm. Then, when a crisis occurs, people following the organization are more likely to believe it than a random person posting negative comments or false information.

“When the crisis hits, that’s what you’re able to bank on,” Walaski said. “You go into the bank and you can withdraw on that credibility that people believe you and they trust you.”

Consequences of failing to act

Depending on the size of your organization, an entire team devoted to crisis communication may not be feasible. Pamela Walaski, president of Pittsburgh-based consulting firm JC Safety & Environmental Inc., said one solution is to make crisis communication part of the emergency response plan. She said she has found that small organizations that put off crisis communication planning usually say: “We’re too small; we don’t have the resources” or “We’re too busy right now; we’ll get to that later.” Whatever the excuse, she noted, if a significant incident occurs, the employer likely will regret not taking time to prepare.

A study conducted by Keri Stephens, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, shows what can happen when customers do not receive adequate information from a company during a crisis. The study, published in the Journal of Public Relations Research (Vol. 21, No. 2), focused on a 2007 pet food recall. The pet food maker put very little information on its website and told people to check back or call a toll-free number. The number was busy, and angry pet owners turned to blogs and began sharing information online about their own sick pets and products being recalled.

“They were creating their own information source because the company was not fast enough and it wasn’t accessible to them,” Stephens said.

Consumers even started swapping attorney information to pursue lawsuits against the pet food company. Some linked to official sources on the chemical in the pet food, while others questioned why chemicals were used at all and promoted going organic.

“They would take the message and spin it sometimes toward their business interest, their personal interest,” Stephens said. “The bottom line was that there wasn’t enough information that people thought was reliable, and it wasn’t updated quickly enough so they created their own lists.”

– AJ

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