Meeting the crisis head-on
Manipulation of emission tests by VW, suspicion of corruption in FIFA‘s choice of World Cup hosts: In both contexts, crisis communication is called for. LMU’s Romy Fröhlich explains what it takes and why a crisis can have positive effects.
It certainly wasn’t the bobby car presented by a car dealer to the then Federal German President Christian Wulff as a gift for his son, nor was it the gifts he accepted from others that led to the allegations that Wulff was exploiting his office for personal gain. What forced Wulff to resign from office in February 2012 was the manner in which his reactions to the original revelations were communicated. “There are two sorts of crises,” LMU media researcher Romy Fröhlich explains. “The first is shaped by the nature of the actual crisis, and the second results from poor communication in response to that primary crisis. In the case of Christian Wulff, there were factual grounds for the primary crisis – journalists had reported on elements of the President’s behavior that were indeed open to criticism – but it was the subsequent crisis of communication that ultimately led to his resignation.”
Romy Fröhlich is a professor at LMU’s Institute for Communications and Media Research. Among other topics, she analyzes crisis communication in the political and corporate sector. This type of information is not only intended for corporations’ own employees, but is also directed to the wider public and the media. The fact that this is one of her professional research interests has given her an insider’s perspective on many crisis situations. For Fröhlich, the Wulff affair was “a tragic example of a crisis which was so exacerbated by poor, reactive communication that the factor that originally triggered it was almost completely obscured.”
Take the choice of the so-called Salamitaktik that determined the initial responses. A policy of accepting only those allegations that can no longer be plausibly denied, i.e., the piecemeal revelation of the truth, is one that very rarely succeeds. “In a case in which there is broad media interest and a general feeling of indignation among the public at large, it is a great mistake to assume that the crisis will rapidly pass, and can meanwhile be defused by proclaiming half-truths.” But taking the opposite tack and adopting a policy of total transparency is not necessarily the most appropriate approach either. One must consider the particulars of the individual case. “If a firm reveals its hand too soon, this may have legal consequences. For instance, depending on the precise circumstances, an apology can be interpreted as an admission of guilt and lead to claims for damages. That explains why, in crisis situations, commercial firms consult company lawyers early on – in order to clarify exactly what they may communicate to the public in the first place.
Among communications experts, the strategy adopted by the airline Germanwings in the aftermath of the tragic crash of one of their planes in March 2015 is regarded as exemplary. “Given the relevant legal constraints, Germanwings reacted in an open and transparent manner,” says Fröhlich, before going on to emphasize that: “Crises which involve the loss of human life are a very special case, and must be handled with far greater sensitivity.” Many recent and current crisis situations will be discussed at the upcoming Crisis Communication Summit to which LMU has invited representatives of the public relations industry and academic specialists in the field of communications. The participants will certainly have plenty to talk about. According to an analysis carried out by the Institute for Crisis Research in Kiel, which organizes the annual summit meeting, the year 2015 has all the hallmarks of a true Crisis Year, with VWs dieselgate, the FIFA scandal and the ADAC debacle erupting in Germany. “Since we began to monitor the term in 1984, the word ‘crisis’ has never been used as often in the public sphere as it was in 2015,” says Frank Roselieb, Director of the Institute in Kiel.
In Fröhlich’s view, firms have become more and more aware of the importance of good crisis communication in recent years. “The number of public relations consultants who specialize in the field is increasing; obviously, the market for such services is growing,” she says. So how does one go about preparing for crises, in the absence of any foreknowledge of when the next one will occur, what it will entail or how it will develop? “This presents an especially difficult problem for companies and organizations that find it hard to imagine that they could ever be engulfed by a crisis – such as charities. But a crisis can befall any organization – out of the blue,” Fröhlich says, pointing to funding scandals and other instances of corruption. For airlines domiciled in the country, the German Federal Aviation Authority (Luftfahrtbundesamt) has developed an emergency plan which sets out how they should react at the organizational level in the event of accidents and casualties. In crisis situations, therefore the airlines are obliged to act in accordance with a specified plan, “which doesn’t necessarily make things easier,” Romy Fröhlich remarks. Nevertheless, as a media researcher, she strongly recommends that organizations should take the trouble to develop a forward-looking policy for coping with crises: “Every firm and every organization should have a crisis intervention policy, in which the nature and sequence of the communications strategy to be followed in the event of a crisis are clearly defined. And staff must be regularly trained to react in accordance with the plan.”
The advent of social media poses a particular challenge for effective crisis communication. “Nowadays, one has to react on multiple fronts at once, whereas in the pre-internet era it was usually sufficient to target one’s communications strategy to traditional newsmedia.” In addition, the minute-by-minute coverage of current events on the internet means that journalists are under unrelenting pressure to report developments rapidly and continuously. And that not only greatly complicates things for “reflective journalism”, as Fröhlich calls it, it also puts crisis communicators under constant pressure to react to breaking news.
“If the analysis of a crisis is very time-consuming, people may be tempted to invent messages, in order to be able to put out a new communiqué.” VW is now engaged on such an investigation. On legal grounds, the reasons for, and the background to the manipulation of emission tests must first be examined and reconstructed within the company itself. “That is a far more complex task than the situation faced by Germanwings, where, from the point of view of the communicators, there were just two major issues – finding the black box and answering the questions concerning the pilot,” Fröhlich says. “And Germanwings managed to negotiate this waiting phase very well. The company also succeeded in getting the majority of the press to play along by invoking the need to respect the feelings of the bereaved.
How those directly concerned handle the media can be crucial for the progression of a crisis. “It is always dangerous to underestimate the power of the press and the perseverance of journalists,” says Romy Fröhlich. And here again, the Christian Wulff affair is a case in point. “There was one crucial factor whose significance was misjudged by both Wulff and his advisors – Wulff’s phone call to the Editor-in-Chief of Bild, the content of which was revealed to the public by the latter.”
On the other hand, according to Romy Fröhlich, the risk of provoking a shitstorm that rages across the internet is one that crisis communicators can face with a degree of equanimity. “A shitstorm that nobody takes seriously is relatively harmless and very seldom precipitates a crisis. In that case, silence is usually golden.” But a very different situation arises when a whistleblower publishes confidential data, or when the outrage expressed online by a few well informed sources has a verifiable and genuine basis. “If an allegation contains the smallest kernel of truth, a crisis response team must be set up immediately. And anyone who has neglected to formulate a crisis intervention plan in advance has no chance of emerging unscathed.” On the other hand, it would be naïve to expect too much from even the best plan. “Crisis communication can keep a crisis under control, but very few real crises can be delayed or even stopped by a well-designed communications strategy,” Fröhlich says – although this is a widespread misconception. Furthermore, crisis communications can only be as good as the management allows it to be, and top management may well have a very different perspective on the crisis from that of the firm’s press spokesman.
“The term ‘crisis’ is often misused. The notion that one can come to terms with a war, a terrorist attack or a tsunami by means of crisis communication is a trivialization of catastrophes that are characterized by a prolonged succession of adverse events,” says Fröhlich. The word itself implies that there is some hope that the crisis can be overcome within a foreseeable period of time, and at best a crisis can have a cathartic effect. “A crisis gives the management an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and why, and how such situations can be prevented in the future. These are questions that businesses and other organizations normally have little time to consider. In that sense, crises and the art of successfully confronting and mastering them can perhaps contribute to making the world a little better.”
The Crisis Communication Summit 2016, hosted by LMU, takes place at 16. March 2016. For information on the Program, see the Conference webpage: www.krisenkommunikationsgipfel.de (The event is already booked out.)
Professor Romy Fröhlich works in the Institute for Communications Science and Media Research at LMU. Her major research interests lie in the areas of media coverage of crisis situations and wars (including gender-sensitive/-related aspects), and the impact of modern public relations on journalism and the media.
For more information on Professor Romy Fröhlich’s research, see: The battle for attention