Three years into the pandemic and with a war at its borders, Europe faces an energy crisis topped with hyperinflation. For leaders and communication strategists, 2023 looks like being another year of crisis. How can we prepare? What can we learn from research? How will consumers react to our product campaigns while prices increase? How do we communicate our employer brand and attract future talent while letting people go? Should we communicate proactively that we’re keeping our business in Russia? What about our net zero commitments and increasing public interest in our company's sustainability claims?
Recently, and together with the European Association of Communication Directors, #NORA - The Nordic Alliance for Communication & Management organized a virtual event on crisis leadership. #NORA Academic Partner Prof. Vilma Luoma-aho from the University of Jyväskylä shared her latest research on crisis arena cross-over. Communication advisor and founder of the communication consultancy Findings, Dr. Maijastiina Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer, demonstrated how research can be applied to practice and shared two crisis communications case studies as well as her recommendation for organisational communicators. Below are her key insights on effective crisis management for leaders and organizational communicators.
Insight 1: PESO was yesterday - today’s currency is DMA
The landscape of crisis communications has evolved. While ten years ago you could manage a major crisis by establishing one-way communication channels and cascading controlled, legally reviewed responses, today's environment is different. The latest research indicates that instead of focusing on paid, earned, shared and owned media (PESO), corporations increasingly operate across multiple digital media arenas (DMA). These are online spaces where the role of strategic communicators is a blend of conveying corporate messages and facilitating conversation among stakeholders. In these arenas, control over creation and dissemination of corporate messages is limited and control over moderation features and facilitation of conversation has weakened (Badham, Luoma-aho, Valentin & Körkkö, 2022.).
Furthermore, crises can now more rapidly progress and expand in today’s digital media landscape. According to recent studies, crises are more likely to cross other arenas when stakeholders participate in the formation and expression of opinion about issues in various arenas and when their assessments are predominantly negative (Badham, Lievonen & Luoma-aho, 2022).
The researchers also suggest that when an organization does not adequately engage in conversation about an issue related to them, a crisis can easily escalate. In other words, if you cannot provide sufficient responses during the crisis build-up, it will likely generate more negative engagement around an issue and create further crisis arenas to monitor and manage. (Badham, Lievonen & Luoma-aho, 2022.)
Insight 2: Staying silent is not an option, shaping the context is recommended
During our webinar, we looked at two recent reputational crises. First, environmental groups have started legal action against the aviation company KLM for adverts that promote the sustainability of flying. The company has not only been challenged for misleading claims and ‘greenwashing’ but also for its response to the crisis. The crisis appears to have crossed arenas, and even the company’s own communication channels and campaign billboards have been hijacked. The case teaches us two things: A) Brands’ communications are increasingly scrutinized and consumers expect corporations to communicate in a fully transparent, honest and ethically correct manner. B) Staying silent is not an option in today’s digital media landscape where crises might cross various arenas. By not taking a stand, you risk losing control of your own story and having a say in the debate.
The second prominent case we looked at is how the Finnish PM Sanna Marin managed her reputation repair last August. The case demonstrates how important it is to a) know your stakeholders - both supporters and opponents, b) actively shape the communication context by addressing what you find appropriate and effective, and c) allow communication to emerge among your supporters. Although Sanna Marin is known for being very active on social media, during the latest crisis she focused solely on the Finnish public media and her voters, who ultimately decide whether she keeps her job.
The PM’s rather traditional crisis response strategy to justify her behavior, remind the audience of her past good work and attack the accuser by setting expectations of what is appropriate to ask and discuss publicly seem to have worked and the first wave of the reputational repair was over after 1,5 weeks. This might not have happened without simultaneous support from the PM’s large, global followership who mobilized and started another social media movement “SolidarityWithSanna”. Thus, previous investments in building good stakeholder relations, being active in key digital communication arenas, and shaping the communication context appear to pay dividends when crises cross over.
Insight 3: ‘Prepper’ kit to manage the unmanageable
You might ask what is our role and how can we prepare for a crisis if communication strategists have low control over organizational messages and how these are discussed and moderated on digital platforms. Don’t worry. The sky has not yet fallen. Quite the opposite, there’s no such thing as bad weather - only unsuitable clothes. You can prepare yourself for a storm. Just start preparing now. Make sure you include the following five items in your ‘prepper’ kit:
- Get your story straight. The communication landscape has evolved and is now fully transparent. Articulate who you are and what you want to become. Go back to your mission and business strategy. Be clear about your internal vulnerabilities and what you are doing to change or improve them.
- Proactively build relationships with your stakeholders. In a crisis, it always comes down to trust and trustworthiness. You’ll need your supporters when a storm hits. Start by mapping your stakeholders. Remember to think beyond shareholders and customers. Aim to build connections also with your opponents. Think of new ways to reach them. Is there something we can learn from each other?
- Invest in key communication arenas. There’s a new set of digital communication arenas and they keep evolving. Map communication arenas relevant to you. Get active. Fish where the fishes are.
- Take part in conversation. Communication emerges. Instead of trying to control your corporation’s message, show willingness to listen, and discuss and debate your position - even with your opponents. Do this before the crisis hits!
- Shape the rules of the game. Communication is contextual. Discuss with your stakeholders what kind of communication you find appropriate and effective, and ethically correct in the arenas in which you're active. State your opinion clearly.
Protecting and building your brand is now as complex as it is important. Remember that a reputational risk is a business continuity risk. When discussing next year’s strategy and budget, you’ll probably want to consider allocating more resources for stakeholder engagement and crisis communications – it could be the best decision you ever made!
Blog post author
Maijastiina Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer (PhD) communication advisor and founder of Findings provides consulting services and helps corporate communicators develop evidence-based comms strategies with impact.
She earned her PhD in leadership communication at the University of Jyväskylä and has managed several crisis as a consultant and communications director incl. Loveparade in Duisburg, Myanmar military coup, COVID-19 and conflict in Ukraine.
Badham, M., Lievonen, M., & Luoma-aho, V. (2022). Factors Influencing Crisis Arena Crossovers: The Apple iPhone #ChargeGate Case. In. Y. Jin & L. L. Austin (Eds.), Social Media and Crisis Communication: Second Edition (2nd. ed.) (pp. 226-237). Routledge. ISBN: 9780367489007.
Badham, M., Luoma-aho, V., Valentin, C. & Körkkö, L. (2022) Digital Strategic Communication through Digital Media-Arenas. In J. Falkheimer & M. Heide (Eds.), The Research Handbook of Strategic Communication. (pp. 415-429). Edward Elgar Publishing.