It’s a safe assumption that you will face a situation at some point, either manmade or natural, in which the need for effective crisis communication is likely.
Crisis communication for the EHS practitioner is a necessary skill to master and should be part of your skills toolbox. Whether you are a staff-level specialist, leading a program or working within a defined incident command system, there is a need to be able to actively listen, gather and analyze information and deliver credible communications in high-stress situations.
Granted, and I would venture a guess that this is true for most of us, there are organizational policies that dictate specifically who speaks in crisis and who does not. At least for me – and for most of my career it was not me that spoke externally to the public on behalf of my organization – I still had situations where I led communications internally with employees, senior leaders and governmental agencies, as well as prepared others to speak on behalf of the organization.
Meeting the Crisis Communication Challenge
Communicating in crisis and doing it in a way that is effective is a challenge. When such an event occurs, employees almost immediately are thrust into an abyss of information black-out and rampant rumors begin spreading. Leaders are scrambling to meet behind closed doors and corporate offices are being called for support. This all is being performed in conjunction with the public, which believes it has a right to know everything that’s happened behind your property line. Added to this, there’s a smartphone in almost every pocket and a healthy appetite among the public to be the first to post to social media, so waiting too long to communicate effectively and the story gets written for you, and it usually is not the one you want to tell.
Ironically, as I wrote this, I glanced at a notification via a newsfeed on one of my social media accounts and saw an update to a workplace fatality that occurred just a day ago in a manufacturing plant about an hour from my office. The news update details that a couple of employees from the plant were found who were willing to share details anonymously about the event.
The heading on the news release reads, “Fellow employees of the man who died in (said company) accident say his death could’ve been prevented.” It then goes on to state that employees at the factory had filed numerous complaints about the machine and the faulty safety features before the accident. There’s a song lyric that comes to my mind – “I wish I could turn back time” – and while there’s little guarantee someone can stop this type of news leaking out, there are elements in how we manage the organization that can help.
Blog Series: Communicating in Crisis
This series of articles “Communicating in Crisis,” will help you navigate what could be rough waters ahead, whether it’s dealing with a situation like COVID-19, a chemical spill that impacts a community in which you do business, or an event that causes injuries or even fatalities to employees.
At some point in your career, you are going to experience a critical event. If you are practicing EHS right now, you’re living through an unprecedented crisis. How you manage these events impacts their lasting effect on employees, the business, the community and your value as an EHS practitioner.
Other Articles in the Series “Communicating in Crisis”
Communicating in Crisis: The Role of EHS in Managing Communication
Communicating in Crisis: Employees
Communicating in Crisis: Emergency Response Planning, Preparation and Training
Communicating in Crisis: Government Agencies
Communicating in Crisis: Preparing the Public Information Officer