From the beginning the problem with the ignition switch had been labeled as a “customer convenience” issue. Those two words left people with the impression that the problem simply annoyed some drivers instead of giving GM experts and managers the more accurate assessment that the problem was a major safety defect that could potentially kill people…. During the same decade that the Cobalt issue had been largely ignored, GM issued hundreds of recalls at “great expense” to the company because those problems were framed as “safety defects” that prompted immediate action. The two words—safety defects—triggered a fast response. The Cobalt’s “customer convenience” issue led to “no sense of urgency, right to the very end.” Had GM re-framed just two words, 13 lives might have been saved.
Framing is the process of how language and words set up expectations and assumptions about reality and what it means. Obviously if you change the frame – you change the way and urgency of how you talk about a topic as well as what sort of decision making sequence that one follows. Ineffective communication has proven to be a major contributor to failures in crisis management and disaster recovery. During times of crisis, communication challenges can escalate problems into disasters. Misunderstandings and lack of coordination can waste unnecessary time, money, and human resources. They can damage reputations, risk health and safety, and in the worst case, cost people their lives. Crisis communication preparation should include training to recognize, monitor and adapt to subtle framing cues that may inadvertently result in poor decision making, instances of group think, or failure to recognize serious implications of a given issue.
However, equally important as framing is the contextual information that comes from the non-verbal elements when we communicate with each other. Human communication is at its most natural when we are in immediate proximity talking and listening to one another face to face. When we see each other, the opportunity for dialogue and two-way interaction occurs freely. We are given context and non-verbal indicators such as facial expressions and body language to help us interpret meaning. The evolution of technologies (e.g. orthography, telephones, radio, facsimile messages, and computer-mediated tools such as e-mail or instant messaging) has isolated us from the rich, natural context for human interaction.
In place of face-to-face meetings, most organizations tend to rely on “lean” communication tools such as radio, telephone and email, which do not easily allow for rich, real-time interactivity. These tools hinder the natural communication process and require users to guess at some of the information, or the context, of what is being shared. These technologies are known as “lean” communication channels. For everyday situations, lean channels may be sufficient because there is time to confirm and reconfirm information. In a crisis, however, lean channels may not allow for all of the information essential to response to be communicated.
At the same time, in a crisis users are under a significant amount of emotional stress. They need to gather and decipher information quickly, while potentially facing physical harm. The lean communication tools are simply not robust enough to avoid the misinterpretation that can result from stress. Rich, natural communication is required. These “mediating” devices create challenges for comprehension and working together, even in everyday life, because they lack the visual element. When comparable groups or teams are asked to make decisions using the same factual information and objectives that the decision process, participation levels, alternative viewpoints considered, amount of time given to discussion and the final decisions will vary (sometimes significantly) based on the method or modality used for their communication interaction. So a team that faces a decision in a face-to-face conference room will make their decision differently and will reach a decision that may be very different from one which interactions via a telephone conference call, email or web-based interaction.
Crises require cross-communication among groups that are not in the same physical location and may not interact on a regular basis. Government agencies, businesses, health officials, external experts and the public all need to share information in order to respond effectively to a large-scale crisis. These groups may not have in-person meetings with each other often. They are made up of people who may not know each other well and may not have developed an understanding of the non-verbal cues that comes from frequent face-to-face contact.
J.D. Wallace, Scott Feinberg and I conducted research on the impact of visual communication (video conferencing as alternative to other distance communication methods) for crisis communication which is available for download as a white paper from Tandberg. In that analysis we found that effective crisis communication should ensure that response groups communicate with each other on a regular basis prior to any crises. Familiarity (experience, practice, tests, etc.) with people, tools, communication modalities, and the plan, reflects the importance of pre-crisis communication to enhance crisis communication. During a crisis, there are times when it is important to utilize rich media communication channels to enhance communication effectiveness (including feedback, participation, stress monitoring, and non-verbal cues). An effective crisis communication plan should make roles and responsibilities clear so that processes are well understood and all parties are included in time of crisis. Effective crisis communication should use all available methods to gather information directly from the field and confirm critical information with a feedback loop. Communication that builds mutual trust among team members should be a key planning focus long before a crisis occurs. An effective communication plan should address potential problems inherent in group dynamics. While ensuring that the team has cohesive objectives, crisis managers should be sure to provide outlets for team members to express disagreement, ask questions, and (re)evaluate assumptions.
What makes communication during a crisis so much more difficult than everyday interactions? Crises are usually fast- paced, stressful, and urgent situations in which critical (sometimes life and death) decisions often have to be made with limited or changing information. It is important for crisis managers to discern appropriate responses to different types of threats. Correctly determining when a crisis situation demands a non-routine organizational response is part of their challenge.
One important communication factor is that it is essential to ensure that all of your key people are fully participating (mentally and actively engaged) in the decision making process as well as the crisis management process. This requires active listening, appropriative communication response, and overcoming apprehension about “speaking out” at critical times. Advance communication and team work training is essential for effective crisis communication readiness.