Leadership and communications
Crises require effective leadership as well as thorough and timely communications and behind the crisis response structures to mitigate events.
Crisis management involves the containment of the damage and development (if required) of recovery of strategy and objectives. During and after a crisis an organisation might need to restructure its own organisational priorities.
Researchers have identified five leadership fundamentals which parallel theories of learning organisations and collectively guide response and recovery efforts (Wooten 2008):
- Building an environment of trust
- Reforming the organisation’s mindset
- Identifying obvious and obscure vulnerabilities of the organization
- Making wise and rapid decisions as well as taking courageous action
- Learning from crisis to effect change
Research signals the importance of leadership actions in crises as a central controlling domain tied to the overall competency and performance of an organisation. In essence, a crisis demonstrates how well the institution’s leadership structure serves the organisation’s goals and withstands, exacerbates or diffuses a crisis.
Developing effective organisational capabilities through crisis leadership requires exceptional talent and human capital combined with dynamic problem-solving.
A crisis may also have benefits, in as far as they provide opportunities to demonstrate to interested parties clear and powerful values held by the executive branch in response to the problems manifest for the organisation. Underlying culturally espoused values become evident in leaders as every word and action is scrutinised. Senior leadership must act swiftly to a breaking crisis to gain favour and merit.
Likewise, organisations operating in the same sector or with similar types of operations may be able to learn and adapt from observing related issues, similar conditions or situations where they themselves are potentially exposed (this is called isomorphic learning).
One of the biggest challenges with crisis communications is the speed at which a crisis can break and spread through media networks, and more recently the growing power of social media in diffusing (or sometimes distorting) the crisis issue to a multitude of digital audiences.
Effective response to a crisis can straddle the following list, and catch organisations and their leaders off guard:
- Situational awareness of the crisis (separating facts from fiction)
- Speed of decision making required (to appease a wide array of interested stakeholders)
- The sheer volume of incoming and outgoing communications (required to deal with the media, concerned customers, contractors, vendors, supply chain partners, regulators etc)
- The need for rapid mobilisation of effective crisis management teams (with clearly defined roles and responsibilities)
- The extent of strong and effective leadership (which must be demonstrated throughout the crisis)
(Adapted from Flin et al. 2008)
In a crisis, an organisation’s leadership must get ahead of events and make clear priorities and actions in a timely way, with full regard to stakeholder needs. If the organisation fails to get ahead of the crisis, the organisation will most likely be led by the crisis narrative itself.
Finally, it is important to remember crises do not discriminate, in as far as they can impact on organisations, celebrities, even governments. A good example of a historical crisis is the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the threats emanating from this crisis of brinkmanship could have had cataclysmic consequences for everyone concerned.
A modern version of a rumbling crisis where stakeholders simply cannot agree on a national strategy is Brexit. In both cases consequences and competing stakeholder perspectives, with different problem definitions and competing communications complicating the resolution of issues.
Imagine yourself as part of an organisation that was suffering a minor crisis. Briefly describe the crisis and indicate how you would use social media to communicate with stakeholders successfully.
Wooten, L., & James, E. (2008). Linking Crisis Management and Leadership Competencies: The Role of Human Resource Development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 10(3), 352-379.
Flin, R., and O’Connor, P. (2017). Safety at the sharp end: a guide to non-technical skills. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
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