Drive communication instead of being driven by it

Drive communication, instead of being driven by it: once the issues have been identified and crystallized a carefully thought out plan should be charted, primarily to minimize the impact of the crisis on the organization at large. This call for absolute consistency, integrity and tenacity, because there will be moments of self exposure, admission of collective responsibility to the crisis and a lot of brick bats to face. A spokesperson has to be identified, who is going to interface with the different publics to ensure consistency and coherence in communication. A core team should be formed to deal exclusively with the crisis, thereby ensuring that the normal working of the organization is not hampered.

Though Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) did admit moral responsibility to the methly isocyanate leak at its Bhopal plant in December 1984, it delayed giving a direction to its communication program by as much as a year after the disaster. In fact, UCIL did not even have a public relations department in 1984. As a consequence, the house arrest of the spokespersons for the company, the chairman and the managing director for around ten days, threw all communication totally out of gear.

The company learnt its lesson. In 1985, UCIL had formed a core team to deal with the crisis, thereby ensuring a smooth functioning for the normal business of the company. This has undoubtedly held in good stead for the company, which despite the fallout of the crisis still carrying on fetched Union Corporation a handsome Rs 290 crores when it sold UCIL to Mcleod Russel.

Interface with industry / association / government: This kind of support is of immense help in times of crisis, as it can provide the right communication platforms and vehicles to reach the influences in bureaucracy of the government.

Remember the Swaraj Paul – Escorts scandal? When Paul in a hostile takeover bid, started buying over shares of escorts, major shareholders, the Nandas, fought back. What clinched things in their favor, apart from a well orchestrated communication exercise was their good offices with the powers that be in the bureaucracy, financial institutions and the government.

So much for the do’s in crisis communication. Now for the don’ts or the pitfalls:

Issues to crisis: Most crises start as smaller issues, which, unattended, snowball into major crises. The cardinal rule is to admit that there is a problem and to be proactive and nip the issue in the bud even before it can assume the proportion of a full blown crisis.

Probably the Tehri and the Sardar Sarovar dam issues would have never assumed crisis dimensions, had it not been for the callous attitude towards communication by the concerned government authorities.

Moment of silence: Make sure it is only a moment. At the time of the crisis, most organizations are too stunned by its magnanimity, losing vital time in even reaction to the crisis. Though the surprise is understandable, what the moment needs is to start thinking and acting on one’s feel even while comprehending the situation.

Had UCIL done that? Well, there was almost a year of near silence – barring some routine and uninspired media briefings before the corporation decided to come out and clarify its position and clear a host of negative perceptions from the media’s mind.

The Legal / guru rescue: Though the importance of the legal angle should be responsibly understood, its limitations should also be realized. The legal protection should not unduly hamper the communication efforts, which happens most of the time, to the company’s peril.

There is a common tendency on the part of most organizations facing crises to start taking things lying down, and this precisely acts as the final nail to their coffins. What is needed instead is the ability and willingness to be aggressive in one’s communication with those intended to harm your interest.

During the ABB crisis in 1992, wherein the company’s technology for rail engines was questioned and allegations of financial kick backs were made, written responses to negative stories were discreetly and quickly circulated to competing media to shame the hostiles in one media. The negative allegations were used to present the positive story to an interested media, according to Baig, who handled the ABB’s communication crisis. There is also a new school that lays emphasis on working out a crisis communication preparedness plan on a broader framework of what is how’s, why’s and who’s of crisis communication. Be that as it may, the first step would still be the willingness to communicate.

Everything will be all right if only we would communicate, but the trouble is we seldom do. Is Indian industry listening?