From Mea Culpa to Resilience – 20 Years of Crisis Communication
Over the past 20 years, the business environment has become significantly more challenging. Retrospect shows however: the communication branch has embraced the challenges with accompanying support in business-critical situations.
Crisis communication – anyone who talks about it today is often confronted with the phrase: everything is now somehow a crisis. The perception of crises has changed over the last 20 years, and with it the challenges for communication. The way of responding appropriately, on the other hand, has hardly changed.
Two events occurring nearly two decades ago, which were particularly critical in their public perception, demonstrated what good communication support can achieve. “Freispruch erste Klasse ” was the title of an article in the Lebensmittelzeitung (Food Products Newspaper) on January 24, 2003, about the successful crisis management of Coppenrath&Wiese. In the same year, Humana also had to deal with a serious crisis. It was about baby milk, which led to the death of babies in Israel. The clear and transparent presentation of the context and decisive action were the cornerstones of successful crisis communication at that time.
Transparency and Prevention
These virtues became established in the wake of this and other crises – at least throughout the better-managed companies. They were proactive and self-confident in admitting what had happened – with the expectation that they would receive understanding and forgiveness in return. However, in one case or another, they overshot the mark a bit and made customers aware of problems in the first place – because self-reinforcing effects did not yet exist as they do today without social media.
- Learning: The basis of all good crisis PR is respect for the possible consequences of the crisis and open, but not obsequious dialog.
- So, if crises can be successfully dealt with in this manner, why not prepare for them? Crisis prevention became a good idea for many companies, who were thus able to “banish” the topic to a crisis folder. There was hardly any real discussion of the reasons behind critical reporting, and most thought they could do without the necessary simulations and training. Then, for the first time, new challenges came from the development of technology. The Internet not only increased the speed of reporting, but also the necessary response time. And the net does not forget. Yesterday’s crisis has a lasting ripple effect, if you haven’t learned anything from it.
- Learning: Prevention is a good first step. But the crisis folder hidden in your closet is no substitute for the mindset and routine you need to deal with the crises.
Has Social Media Changed Everything?
Social media once seemed to herald the supposed end of professional communications. About 15 years ago, a well-known blogger said to me, “You PR consultants won’t exist in 10 years. Because there won’t be any media.” Regardless of the form of media though, there will always be the need for reliable information. And with that, the need for information and dialogue in critical situations. Still, much has changed: Everyone is now a stakeholder with their own platforms, constantly inciting discourse. Clutter and excitement characterize the communicative background noise.
Learning: Good crisis PR adapts to its target groups and their communication channels, but does not chase after inflated opinions.
The Time of Metacrises
Perhaps the greatest caesura of the last twenty years is that which we now face, at least perceived, a series of overarching crises. From the European Financial Crisis to the Coronavirus Pandemic to the Ukrainian War. Added to this is an economic environment that poses significantly higher challenges for most companies. The classic crisis, caused by an accident, an incident or a defective product, tends to fade into the background. Advances in corporate management have contributed to this, but so have standardizations such as product recalls.
Companies have had to understand that successfully managing externally induced crises can make all the difference and a resilient company needs professional communication skills. These skills are also in demand from a management level employee, because a manager’s day-to-day work is characterized by “VUCA” – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.
Learning: Communication support in a crisis is not a vote of no confidence in the company’s management, but a sparring partner for success.
A Modern Crisis Communication
What ideas then follow this short history of crisis communication? The core of crisis communication remains: the serious management of a critical situation and its open communication. None of the developments of the last two decades have changed this – neither on an economic nor on a media level. Nor on a technological level, such as the recently initiated discussion about communication and artificial intelligence. For example, ChatGPD responds to input from a consumer critique, “We understand your concerns and take your concerns seriously.” We’ve been there for a long time.
- Learning: The new self-image of crisis communication is its grown naturalness in preparing for and accompanying critical situations.