Throughout my entire life I was told to always prepare for that rainy day. Ironically, no one ever explained how to prepare for that supposedly rainy day. So I started asking many questions, as I always do, about topics that I need more information about in order to do a better job. I actually found that most people, some in top positions, had no idea how to prepare, didn't have a template for preparing and most had never encountered a real disaster.
Over the years I have experienced many disasters that have provided significant lessons in the way I handle unexpected risks today. Interestingly enough, crises all seem to contain the same ingredients that include false information, lies, fear of telling the truth in an effort to protect, attacks on one's character, and political gains for certain leaders, governments, or corporations.
At a very young age my first crisis, even before I understood the word crisis, was dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis in San Francisco. At the time I had not developed my wings of communication yet, nor knew that I wanted to pursue a career in communications at all. At the time I worked for one of the most known AIDS organisations, but learned a lot from their mistakes. I watched staff members attack each other with the focus of destroying them in order to get in the limelight. False or incorrect information was also released to certain communities that didn't get the much needed educational information until it was too late. Communities of colour were told with confidence that none of them would contract HIV/AIDS because of the colour of their skin. Even being young and naive, I was wise enough to know that this was false information. Communities receiving the most information and care were not those of colour. This information also shaped my future work, vision and mission at Promotions West Communications. Although my position as an educator was threatened, I risked my employment and went out into the various communities to educate them with honest facts about the real crisis. I was fortunate to be moved to the communications department because it was discovered that I had a background in broadcast media. This is when I got to see disfunction up close. The Communications Director at the time believed that she walked on water and was the only person who could speak to the media in a professional manner. I had no interest at the time of speaking to the media since I had been the media for 8+ years as a reporter and talk show host. Instead of grooming a young person, she set out to destroy me. It didn't work. When she left on vacation out of the country, suddenly, Rock Hudson died from HIV complications and guess who had to be the spokesperson, unqualified as it was believed I was at the time. Needless to say it all worked out because I stood for truth and honest communication. Three weeks later after her return, I was terminated by my boss for belief that I was trying to take her job. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes pushing a bird out of its nest may be the only way to get it to learn to fly.
My second major crisis was being involved in disaster planning. This was a great learning experience for me because it was an opportunity to work with some of the most creative and brilliant people in the industry. I am proud to say that I am still friends with several of the leadership team members from that time. They taught me all about planning in advance for disasters by developing a crisis management plan, preparing a team to respond, creating the messages, planning all the media and practicing over and over again until nothing could go wrong. I also learned that even the most perfect itinerary will always need a bit of tinkering with when the actual crisis begins. Together, we worked on the major hurricane that took place in New Orleans called Katrina. We were more prepared than the leadership in the state of Louisiana. The sad part was watching the exact same scenario happen all over again in front of my eyes. Many of the same ingredients with a few more seasonings of mistrust, distrust, fighting for power, deceit, releasing fake information and turning their back on communities needing the most help. As a result, many people died when they could have been saved. Special thanks to JYB, CVS and AA for making it a great experience for me.
There were a few smaller crises, but the one that has made the biggest impact on my world today is COVID. I am certain that it would be redundant to share the devastation that occurred in America in 2019 and how an entire population was disregarded and mistreated. The administration doing this time had the best leaders in position that provided sound advice on ways to prevent a crisis. None of the advice was taken and the numbers of deaths was predicted and expected, mostly without remorse by those few making the decisions for a nation. Today, I watch other countries struggling to take care of their citizens and I am impressed by the messages that are being received from Brazil, India and several other countries. It brings me joy to hear leaders, community stakeholders, medical personnel and others being honest as they struggle to share true information with their populations.
So what are some of the common mistakes that make things worse when dealing with a crisis?
Failing to plan is truly a Plan to fail. Every organisation, corporation or government entity must have a risk or crisis communications plan. That plan should not sit on a shelf waiting to be read when a crisis hits, but should be an active plan, reviewed often, edited to exist with the present times.
Inconsistency. This is another reason why planning is so important. It's vital to construct a mixed crisis team of people from various cultural backgrounds. Most companies compile teams of just members of the leadership which can be a flaw or a major disaster. Many staff members may be from the communities that are being hit the hardest by a crisis. It helps to hear their opinions and treat them with respect. Everyone on the crisis team should be relaying the exact same message and not playing it by ear. If this occurs, the crisis becomes worse and may create a lack of trust. Crisis communications require a well-defined package of messages and adherence to relaying those messages consistently. Otherwise, there is a chance that confusion and mistrust will be created.
Taking too long to respond because of fear of saying the wrong thing. After participating in a World Health Organization Crisis Management webinar over a couple of days, it was clear that it's important to always have a clear message for your audience as long as the information is true. By avoiding the audience or hesitating to speak openly and honestly can create more fear.
Not listening. Active listening is essential in being able to accept information. We must learn how to talk to the people that we are serving. Scientist and doctors often have a difficult time talking outside of statistics and data, but the average person doesn't understand this language. If you only speak in stats, bring someone onto your team who speaks the same language that those being impacted speak. During a crisis, the purpose of communication is to inform and educate with the correct information. I encourage my clients to tell stories or learn to tell stories about what is happening in the present moment. We must learn to listen to community stakeholders or priority audiences in order to hear their concerns and needs. Listening is always key when planning a campaign, a community engagement or any event. Community stakeholders and members should be involved in every step of the planning process. They can also help in how the information is presented or even help to create the story.
Lack of Awareness. Review everything, including all advertising, social media content, internal & external communications, images, newsletters, webpage, etc. to make sure no one is offended by a statement that may have been made. The worse thing any company could do is appear to be insensitive or thinking of their financial portfolio in times of crisis.
Lack of Transparency. Remember that the audience receiving your messages are concerned, and often stressed human beings. Regardless of where and how the crisis began, your audience wants to know that someone cares and is in control. In a crisis, leadership must convey sincerity, empathy and transparency. Communications must sound human, authentic and in keeping with your company voice and culture. They must also offer optimism and hope, even in the darkest times.
Ignoring social media. Many organisations do not interact with the public, therefore social media is not a part of the communications channel. As a result, these social media channels are not being considered when planning for a crisis. Believe it or not, the possibility is high that a crisis may play out on social media, regardless of the number of fans or followers that exist. You may ask why, well, it's because many people utilise social media as a trusted source of news and updates, especially during a crisis. It's better to be dispersing true information and facts as opposed to many groups promoting fake news or false information. The past 2 years have taught us that fake news flies around the world faster than most of us can tie our shoes for a morning walk.
A major lesson that I am sharing is that Communication is key when dealing with a major risk or crisis. The crisis is not about one of us or some of us. The crisis is about all of us and involves every single one of us. We must make communication first and it needs to be simple and clear to understand. Learn to talk to people, instead of at them, using language that is not understood. It causes more confusion. Remember, collaboration with the communities hit the hardest is a priority. The best ways that we have found to work with priority audiences is by being humble and respectful. Remember, honesty is key in responding to the media or community. It's more honourable to be truthful and say, I don't know the answer at this time, but I will get the answer for you.
So are you ready for your next crisis? It's not a matter of if, but when it will happen.
Mikael Wagner is the Principal of Promotions West Communications.