Sergat: Specialist Communications Agency for Tourism

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The Six Sins of Crisis Communication (and there’s more!)

In the aviation, tourism and hospitality industries the question is not whether there will be a crisis or emergency. The question is: when?

We distinguish, essentially, three types of crisis:

– Human factor, intentional

– Human factor, unintentional

– Natural disasters

As a public relations agency specialized in crisis communication for the aviation, tourism and hospitality industries, over the last three decades we have worked in a wide variety of crises to support our clients in managing their communication in Spain or – in some cases – even in consulting and support to the central management of the emergency communication.

Incidents, accidents, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, epidemics, strikes, bankruptcy proceedings, fleet groundings, bomb threats and other terrorism related threats, loss of confidence, rumors, interruptions of operations …. The most heterogeneous scenarios of more or less severity and scope at international level. This has led us, for many years now, to develop practical crisis communication seminars for our clients and companies, which we give both to groups of interested parties and to individuals who need to be prepared.

The objective of this article is not to review the seminar content, but to name, based on what we have experienced and observed, some of what we call “sins” in crisis communication that must be avoided at all costs. This implies that companies take the matter seriously, since a crisis and deficient communication can have a devastating impact on the reputation and business interest of any brand. The credo in crisis communication is: preparation, credibility, availability.

Sin #1: Lack of preparation

In most cases, a crisis unfolds without prior warning, it appears or passes unexpectedly and takes us by surprise. The worst thing is not to be prepared. As a communications agency for the tourism sector, we have several clients – first line global companies – that invest a lot of time and resources in the thorough preparation of a possible emergency to mitigate its impact. They have detailed manuals, templates and checklists for all the most likely crisis scenarios in their company or field. This also requires constant effort, training and periodic exercises. These exercises must include all the parties potentially involved or that will have to play a fundamental role in the communication, as it is the case of the communications agencies, and even more if an emergency happens in the same market where they have an agency. In our case, Sergat has several mandates for local support in Spain in case of an emergency, and this support includes a 24/7 standby alert. A crisis can happen at any time, not just during office hours.

Sin #2: Late reaction

In a crisis, rapid communication is of essence. The first few hours are vital, as are the next 24 – 72 hours. Some of our clients have a benchmark to get the first communication out in just 15 minutes after being notified about an incident or accident. Media interest, as well as the spread of news or speculation, is almost imminent and in the digital age we live in, the sending of images and information through social networks is instantaneous.

Sin #3: Distract and hide

It is a crisis, if it originates within the company itself, it is not convenient to distract,  or look for external reasons. It is important to recognize the fact, take responsibility and take command with authority and credibility. A vacuum must be avoided at all costs, as it leaves the door open to rumors and speculation. Good crisis communication management also means being available to the media as well as to those affected and their environment. Showing up and not hiding is essential for credibility and to be able to channel messages and, why not, even generate empathy with the company. And, in this area, today the correct use of social networks such as Twitter, for example, to communicate quickly plays a crucial role.

Sin #4: Lying and speculating

Lying is a bad strategy, and lying on purpose has taken its toll on many companies that have had to face a crisis. Although it doesn't go with the context, perhaps we should apply it to political communication as well…

The maxim in crisis communication is: the truth, only the truth and nothing but the truth. And we add: perhaps not the whole truth. Not telling the whole truth – or what can be communicated at a given moment may be only a part of what you know or want to communicate – may be important but it is not the same as lying. You should never lie in a crisis!

The other taboo is speculation or venturing into various unconfirmed hypotheses. You should only communicate about what is certain and what, at any given moment, can be made public as confirmed and contrasted facts.

Sin #5: Not understanding the media

Journalists do their job. It is in the nature of the media to thrive on bad news. The more bad news there is, the more interest there is from  the media (and their audiences). This needs to be taken into account, as interaction with the media in a crisis is basic. They will look for any angle or story to underpin their article or give it more repercussion. If the company does not provide the information, they will look for other sources elsewhere. As far as possible and on what can be communicated at any given time, it is preferable to collaborate with them and not get into fights that cannot be won.

Sin #6: Everyone says different things

It is advisable to speak with one voice. What does it mean? Centralize communication to avoid contradictory or wrong messages. A unified communication direction and, if possible, a single spokesperson. But be careful, these logistical details are part of the preparation phase and should never be decided on the spot when the crisis erupts but carefully prepared.

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