Reflections on crisis communications – how prepared are we?

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A few weeks ago, a group of passionate communications professionals met in Athens, Greece, to deep dive into the issue of crisis communications. This was the autumn meeting of the EFC’s Communications Professionals in Philanthropy Network, proudly hosted by Bodossaki Foundation of Greece on 21 & 22 November.

Discussing crisis communications in Greece? The idea itself generated smiles among the group – to say the least. The country has become almost synonymous with the word ‘crisis’ over the last decade.  This is not only as a result of the debt and financial crisis it has suffered, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of a series of unfortunate decisions that almost led to its exiting the European Union in the summer of 2015.  Admittedly the situation has somehow improved since, and the country today is in the 57th place among the world’s 100 most valuable nation brands 2019 (a survey published by Brand Finance). Simon Anholt’s recent “Good Country Index” ranks Greece 40th among 153 countries in terms of its global contribution to science and technology, and 24th in terms of its contribution in the world order, planet and climate. Hopefully, the crisis is behind us.

Why is branding relevant to crisis communications at all? And why should we, philanthropy communications professionals, begin to care? During the masterclass in crisis communications by Bold Ogilvy’s Senior Consultant, George Flessas, a professional with 30 years of experience in strategic communications and crisis management in the Greek market, we have confirmed that a strong brand image and reputation are essential to an organisation, when dealing with issues that may lead to crises. We have also learned that the meaning of the word crisis itself originated from the Greek language, and is associated with the notion of decision in close connection to the notions of evaluation and judgement. Inevitably, crisis management is all about making decisions, ideally the right ones.

A challenge the group has admitted to facing, when dealing with crisis communications, is the definition of crisis itself. Looking at case studies and examples offered by members of the group, what may qualify as an issue or a dormant crisis for the organisation’s communications teams may not qualify as such a pressing issue for the organisation’s CEO. This is why senior buy-in and direct CEO involvement is critical when putting together a crisis communications plan.

Another challenge emerging from the group’s discussions is associated with issues or crisis among our grantees, which at some point, inevitably, may connect to the image and reputation of the granting organisation. This can also apply to reputation issues related to the organisation’s funders or to associated organisations with a similar brand name. Take for example the case of a philanthropy foundation named after a bank, or a business organisation. Wouldn’t a crisis faced by the latter affect the image and reputation of the former?

In today’s global environment, with the internet and social media taking the lead in spreading the word, communications professionals have just under an hour before a local crisis gets picked up by the international media. This means that reaction times are too short. We do not have the luxury to wait, hide or run away from the truth. We need to be communicating quickly, dispatch accurate and credible information in real time and, obviously, keep all audiences and channels informed. This cannot happen without a well thought out crisis communications plan already in place and a lot of practice and preparedness prior to the crisis emerging.

Among the 30 participants of the group, roughly one out of 4 have a crisis plan in place. Some are working on it, and some others are faced with an internal perception among the organisation that “crisis will not affect a philanthropic institution”. It is our role as communications professionals to highlight the issue of crisis at least on the internal agenda and ensure that sufficient work has been put into crisis preparedness, before the actual crisis hits our door.

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