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Organizations each day might face various types of potential crisis situations such as, workplace violence, explosions/fires, harmful products and management misconduct etc. The term “crisis communication” could be defined as,
“Not necessarily catastrophic event, but rather an event that, left to usual business processes, cases significant reputational, operational and financial harm (Doorley & Gracial, 2007)
“The most challenging part of crisis communication management is reacting – with the right response – quickly. This is because behavior always precedes communication. Non-behavior or inappropriate behavior leads to spin, not communication” (James E. Lukaszewski)
Characteristics of crisis communication
To analyze the characteristics of crisis communication it’s wise to do a comparison with marketing communication based on factors such as, target audience, communication objectives, lead time, communication tools & message type. The following denotes a comparison between crisis communication and marketing communications.
a) Target Group (TG)
In crisis communication, it may target many stakeholders or a specialized set of group, where it would depend based on the nature of the crisis which an organization faces. In marketing communication it generally targets the customers, competitors and channel members. (Retailers, suppliers etc.)
b) Communication objectives
The objectives of crisis communication would be, reduce threat/risk to the business, diffuse crisis situations (Inform and persuade) where as in marketing communication the main objectives would be to differentiate and remind)
c) Lead time
Lead time for crisis communication would be extremely low. (Reacts as a when it happens) but in marketing communication activates are well pre planed. (Higher respond time)
d) Communication tools
In crisis communications depending on the nature of the crisis the organization may use broadcast or narrowcast to communicate with its stakeholders. But generally in crisis communications tools such as PR articles & websites will be used. In marketing communications tools such as, TV, radio and news papers are commonly used.
e) Message type
During crisis communication, the message which is been communicated need to be impartial, rational, factual and direct, where as in MC the message generally tend to be vague & indirect.
In MC it is much easier to determine the budgets where as in crisis communication it’s a bit hard to determine a budget as it may differ based on the nature of the crisis.
Finally it needs to be stated the crisis communication is distinctly different from routine communication carried out by the company. Therefore it requires a different type of approach.
Managing Crisis communication
Corporate reputation is a valuable asset (Fombrun and van Riel, 2004). A crisis is a threat to the corporate reputation and crisis communication (Crisis response) can be integral parts of repairing that harm/protecting the reputational assets (Barton, 2001; Benoit, 1995).
As mentioned above the characteristics identified (TG, communication objectives, lead time, communication tools, message type and budgets) are distinctly different from the way in which the routine communication is handled at MAS Intimates. Due to this mismatch it s important to identify the way in which to manage the above characteristics. Firstly it’s important to have a solid plan, identify who are the stake holder group gets affected, developed contingency plans, allocate resources (sufficient budgets and man power), composition of the team (It’s not wise to depend on the routine people, therefore MAS need to provide necessary training and expertise to the relevant individuals), Identify which external parties would assist MAS Intimates, what are the media options, and to stimulate or rehearse the crisis plan for a crisis situation etc.
Impact of crisis communication on corporate reputation
Crises damage the reputation and such changes can affect how stakeholders interact with the organization (Barton, 2001; Dowling, 2002). It need to be stated if an organization manages crisis communication in a ineffective manner it would make the crisis situation worse where as managing effectively would give the organization the opportunity to face the crisis successfully and convert it to an opportunity.
In identifying the impact on reputation one could use the crisis which GAP and Nike experienced during its allegation for breaking its strict code of conducts and anti sweat shop rules which was investigated by Panaroma. (BBC) The two brands claim that regular monitoring ensures that most factories are free of unethical practices. But the Panaroma team uncovered sweatshop working conditions and child labour in textile factory in Cambodia which produces GAP and Nike garments.
The news evoked the customers (University students in Oregon who lived near Nike and Gap head offices) in United of States, where they not only started to protest and reticulate on anti sweat shops claims & against the Nike owner (It’s suppose to be the biggest protest movement in US since Vietnam)
Impact on crisis communication in GAP & Nike reputation
During the investigations it was clearly evident that both these companies knowingly have breached its code of conduct, as a result they have mislead its customers the promises given on anti sweat shop practices and banning child labour in its manufacturing practices.
It was evident the spokesmen addressing the media in this aspect didn’t disclosed the exact ground situation. Instead they made an attempt to cover the existing situation by sighting vague excuses, which will no doubt cast a question in respect of the credibility with regard to GAP & Nike, and as a result it will create a negative impact in terms of company’s reputation.
“To avoid misunderstanding and confusion, organizations need to direct the publics attention to credible sources and ensure they hear the truth” (Taylor, 2006).
In 1992, Johnson and Johnson Tylenol medication commanded 35% of US “over the counter” market analysis. The SKU was doing growing rapidly and it showed 15% of the company profits.
Crisis hits Johnson and Johnson
Unfortunately at a stage where the company sales were blossoming an individual succeeded in lacing drugs with cyanide. As a result seven people died of it and there were rumors spreading due to contamination in the drug were causing the deaths. At the end of the episode everyone in US knew Tylenol was associated with the allegation. As a result of it company market value dropped by $1 billion & (Impact towards the company reputation) the share price dipped drastically.
Impact on crisis communication in Johnson and Johnson reputation
They responded quickly by complete openness and immediately removed any source that would bring a threat by without waiting for any evidence from other states.
Having acted quickly they ensured every measurement was taken to avoid any similar future occurrences. (Providing a tame proof packaging)
Willingness to share the cost on behalf of customer safety
Finally it’s important to note the crisis communication has a clear bearing on co-operate reputation. Therefore it needs to be managed properly to reduce impact from a crisis.
Readiness level for crisis communication
Problems are inescapable in the dynamics of the twenty-first century, but it does not mean tackling them is insurmountable. Eliasson and Kreuter (2000) argues, one major complication with crisis is how to define the actual “crisis variable”.
The following criteria need to be assessed to check the readiness level of an organization to tackle any crisis situation. They are identification of the crisis, assessment of crisis in terms of impact, likelihood, which stakeholders get affected, planning and action, team appointed, spokesperson, training of people, tools and equipment & internal communication.
Potential crisis & Readiness level at MAS Intimates
MAS Intimates has position itself as a supplier who produces guilt free garments to its world renowned customers. As a result, one could state that MAS is anticipating crisis in terms of not providing guilt free garments though they haven’t experienced or rehearsed any crisis to-date. Apart from that, MAS is exposed in to crisis such as, loss of quality suppliers, physical injuries during production, workplace violence, explosions/fires, management misconduct etc.
In analyzing the readiness level presently at MAS, majority of the criteria’s mentioned above are not put in to practice. For an example MAS does not possess a specific team to manage any crisis situation, lack of a senior spokes person with media credibility, no proper crisis plan or a process & a structured program to train personnel.
Finally it needs to be stated the readiness level at MAS to face a crisis is at a lower state. Going forward the gaps identified need to be mitigated if MAS are to manage crisis in an effective manner.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the Crisis Management Plan (CMP)
A CMP would present a list of contact information, reminders of what generally should be done in a crisis and also it helps to develop the crisis response. A CMP is not a step-by-step guide on how to manage a crisis, where Barton (2001), Coombs (2007a), and Fearn-Banks (2001) have noted how a CMP saves time by pre planning tasks, collecting information prior to the crisis, and serving as a guiding source.
Once MAS Intimates execute its Crisis Management Plan it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of it. In doing, so MAS Intimates could use the following criteria’s to evaluate the effectiveness of its crisis plan. They are,
Early warning systems
This is the ability to monitor and identify the crisis. It’s the responsibility of the appointed team to monitor the internal and external environment on a consistent basis.
Identify the scale of the crisis
When a crisis is detected by the crisis management team it’s important to analyze the level of impact & the reaction of each and every stakeholder group.
The plan should be flexible to cover the scope of the crisis.
It’s one of the critical criteria’s in which MAS needs to consider when they are measuring the effectiveness of the crisis plan. It could measure through how fast the plan reacts to the crisis and to get through to your stakeholders.
Example: Johnson and Johnson were able to react fast and as a result they were able to get over the Tylenol crisis within a period of five months.
Ability to influence stakeholder opinion
This is the extent to which the plan could influence the stakeholder opinion in favor of
This refers to the way in which the media reacts to the crisis situation. Ideally the crisis plan needs to make sure that majority of the communication tools need to provide positive comments in favor of MAS during and post crisis.
Post crisis reputation
It’s the extent to which the crisis plan has influenced the crisis situation. The evaluation will be done based on,
The level of improvement,
Has it worsen the situation
Is the situation remains the same
The following suggestions are recommended to improve the crisis communication at MAS Intimates.
a) Internal communication
Employees are perhaps the most important stakeholders during a crisis, where poor internal communication could undermine the efforts to manage a crisis externally. For example lack of trust, employee turnover and poor customer relations would make the crisis even worse if it’s not properly managed. The following practices are recommended to improve the internal communication at MAS. They are, setting up crisis communication channels, desktop alerts, message reporting tools, use social media to listen to your employees, setup target audience in advance, carry out scenario planning and plan messages ahead, provide pocket guides, have crisis communication maps etc.
b) Recruitment of a PR agency
It is important to recruit a PR urgency which would be very useful in a crisis situation for MAS. It would help MAS to link with other media communication channels especially in executing PR articles, and developing media strategies to counter attack or defend against a crisis situation.
Media relation experts are often criticized for the ability to craft stories & spin stories in favor of the relevant party. So it’s critical for MAS to build a strong relationship with the relevant media channels and media houses. The following techniques could be used by MAS to create a strong bondage with the media personnel.
Carry out proper research and prepare
Always admit the truth
Meet in person -One on one & face to face goes a long way in media relation. For an example Coca Cola used to take its media personnel for lunch or invite for its cocktail gatherings.
Be available for 24/7 – Appoint a designated person to handle calls received from media channels
Finding new ways to communicate – Corporate blogs, message and business networks.
The nature of training would vary based on the crisis. In providing training, MAS could use techniques such as stimulations, mock ups, media training, mock plays, sharing best practices carried out by other company’s etc.
e) Appointment of a company spokesperson
A “spokesman” would play a critical role in a crisis situation as the team need to prepare themselves to talk to the news media. Lerbinger (1997), Feran-Banks (2001), and Coombs (2007a) devote considerable attention to media relations in a crisis. It would be wise if MAS could appoint a member from the director board to represent the company as its spokesperson in order to ensure the credibility of all deliveries made in public.
Proposed article will be published in the “Marketer” and “LMD” (Lanka Monthly Digest) magazine which would be read by leading business professionals and business students.
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