Communicating in a Crisis

Posted in : HR Updates on 28 May 2012
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

Helen O'Brien writes:

Health and safety incidents can lead to serious reputational damage if inadequately handled by the organisation involved. Stephen Thomas, Health & Safety Consultant at Croner outlines the importance of reputation management and offers guidance for preparing for and handling a crisis.


Reputational risk is still seen as one of the key motivators for compliance with health and safety legislation. An organisation’s reputation — which could have taken many years to nurture and grow — can be irreparably damaged in a short timeframe if the response to unwanted incidents is not managed in an appropriate way.

Compliance and Reputation Links 

The reputation of an organisation has two main components.

  • Perception: how the organisation is perceived by stakeholders.
  • Reality: the reality of an organisation’s policies, practices, procedures, systems and performance.

Reputation will reflect the perception, good or bad, that the different stakeholders who interact willingly with or are affected by an organisation have of that organisation, basing their evaluation of its performance on the information that is available (e.g. annual reports). Information, in whatever form that it flows in, through and out of the organisation, is therefore of vital importance to maintaining reputation — and to the continuing survival of the organisation.

Media Influences

Unwanted events in an organisation are more public than ever before and elevate from operational to reputational issues almost instantly if the circumstances are correct.

Modern means of communication have transformed how incidents are reported upon and scrutinised by the press, the public and others. Such scrutiny can be immediate and intense, with organisations being judged in the unforgiving court of public opinion that can influence the perceptions and opinions of the public and stakeholders. Many organisations struggle to restore their reputations following such scrutiny.

In most scenarios, the reputational outcome depends heavily on what is said and done in the first few hours following the incident. What the media report in the initial stories and how they view the ability of the organisation to cope will often set the tone for the entire unwanted event through to its conclusion.

The biggest change and challenge for reputational management is the revolution of the Internet, smart handheld devices and social media. Social media can make information spread faster and allow the media, public and stakeholders to voice their opinions and experiences or propagate rumours rapidly in a highly visible manner.

Managing communications, particularly with the media, is therefore essential, failure to do so can mean:

  • the media will not know what is happening and react negatively, making assumptions about the situation
  • the organisation could be perceived as being inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst.

Communicating and Reputational Risk

Organisations can provide information pro-actively on health and safety performance to stakeholders as part of its corporate social responsibility agenda, thereby striving to build a positive reputation. However, when an unwanted incident occurs, it is vital that the organisation ensures that the appropriate information is provided to the relevant stakeholders in a controlled manner to try to mitigate any reputational damage.

An integral part of any contingency planning for unwanted incidents is the development of a communication strategy and/or plan before an event occurs that can be used to manage stakeholder information flow, thereby helping to protect the organisation’s reputation.

The general principles to be considered when developing a communication strategy are that:

  • crisis communication maintains a steady flow of relevant, factual and timely information to key internal and external sources
  • communications must have a central strategic role in the response to and recovery from an incident, including protection of reputation
  • those with responsibility for communications must have sufficient credibility with organisational management to give clear advice that is acted upon.

The strategy should also consider the appropriate numbers of trained, competent spokespeople that are required and authorised to release information and to whom they can release information.

The strategy may also have to give consideration to any incident that occurs out-of-hours, in particular the process for contacting the appropriate persons who may be required to respond to an incident and manage the response.

Incident and Information

In the event of a crisis or unwanted event occurring, a decision will need to be made regarding its potential impact and whether or not a contingency plan needs to be invoked. This will very much be a judgement call, based upon the facts available. Where invocation is deemed necessary, this will have to be with all due expediency to ensure the appropriate flow of information at the earliest possible stage.

What are known as “fast facts” that have been pre-prepared can be released to the media and other relevant stakeholders. These may provide basic information about the organisation and its health and safety culture that places it on the “front foot” of stakeholder relations. It is important that the organisation establishes itself as the prime authoritative source of information about the incident as well as its actions relating to the incident.

Clearly any information provided must be subject to some form of approval process before being released, including an approved and consistent format. This will usually be by a senior manager with the support of expert advice, but will need to be undertaken with all due expediency. The information released should not include any information that is speculative, estimates of damage, names of those involved, causes of the incident or any statement relating to liability or negligence.

The use of the intranet, Internet and social networks to provide information should also be given consideration as part of the communication strategy, as many organisations and individuals monitor these networks for information about ongoing crises.

The response should also include a process for monitoring media coverage. It is vital to know what is being said about the organisation in order to provide internal feedback and to allow ongoing communication and information flow to be adapted accordingly.

This article is correct at 09/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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