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The Waves and Streams of Crisis Communication

Navigating the media in a crisis is complex, but it starts with knowing when to surf and when to swim.

Complaints about the media and communications are among the most common my colleagues and I hear from leaders when we study crises. It was a consistent theme at a recent symposium we co-hosted on the response to the Boston Marathon bombings. Particularly vexing are the challenges of understanding the evolving media landscape and the increasing importance of social media.

But I have a metaphor that seems to help executives make sense of it all: waves and streams.

Waves are the traditional print and broadcast media. They have predictable cycles: Despite the migration of news to the Web, there is still a morning paper, and radio and television continue to deliver regularly scheduled broadcasts. Each of these needs content, has deadlines, and drives a lot of the larger conversation in all media.

You surf a wave. You have to be ready for it and time your engagement if you want to “shoot the curl” for maximum impact. This is the objective of the prepared statement or press conference. The regular briefings officials gave during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 were the anchor for daily news coverage—and often the source of complaint and derision when officials perhaps weren’t prepared to catch the wave, as is often the case in these fast moving and complex situations.

Waves can be mastered with crisis communications 101: Tell them what you know, tell them what you don’t know, tell them what you are doing to close that gap and when to expect the next update. In some cases you can tell the public what you want or need them to do. Be honest and transparent. Set clear expectations.

Richard Besser—an alum of the NPLI program where I am director of research—was acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the early days of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. (He is now ABC News’ chief health and medical editor.) He made the decision to deploy a legion of surfers during that crisis: Every news outlet that requested an interview was granted one. They did not all get the most senior person, but they had access to a qualified person who could convey accurate information and answer questions. Influenza can be complex; public anxiety breeds speculation and misinformation. Ensuring that an official spokesperson was available to every media outlet kept the public informed while minimizing the risk (and distraction) of rumors run wild. It built trust.

Someone is going to surf the wave. It can be you, or it can be someone else—unfortunately, that someone else could be a critic or a speculating subject matter expert. We saw lots of the latter speculation from outside the organization in the early days of the Malaysia Airlines incident, when the coverage leaned heavily toward a nefarious cause for the plane’s disappearance. Now, that scenario seems less likely. When you can’t proactively catch a wave, you may spend a lot of time and effort reacting to the story, correcting misinformation, and rebutting rumors rather than helping shape the narrative.

Though they’re still critical for effective crisis communication, the waves are no longer the only game in town. Enter the streams: Streams are the online flows of news that course through social media channels, blogs, and the websites of traditional news organizations. You must engage constantly with the streams as you will be swimming, not surfing.

Streams are fed by various sources. As every news organization now has an online presence, the waves will splash into the streams, amplifying volume and sometimes increasing the turbulence. Tweeters and other posters will check your facts, add their spin, or simply tell you that you are full of manure.

But waves aren’t the streams’ only source. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used a team of communicators to monitor emerging rumors and either correct or confirm them as appropriate. For example, there were reports that FEMA was ignoring certain affected areas. In fact, there were FEMA personnel on the ground in these places but they had deployed so quickly that they were not wearing FEMA jackets so they could not be readily identified. Swimming in the social media stream allowed the communications team to both correct the rumors and to unite the FEMA workers with those in need of help.

Effectively navigating the stream means blessing the messenger, not the message. You must train your communications people to steer clear of creating legal exposure or violating disclosure laws and, beyond that, free them to swim. Nervous lawyers will need a bit of training, too. If you try to have every semicolon approved up the chain of command—the old wave strategy—you will drown.

If you try to have every semicolon approved up the chain of command, you will drown.

Streams allow for two-way communication. You learn what your supporters and critics are saying. You gather fresh information. There is risk in jumping in but even greater risk in staying out of the flow. If your organization is not engaged in the relatively placid streams of daily business, it will not be ready to shoot the rapids that it will encounter in a crisis.

I encourage social-media-phobic executives to follow a breaking news story online. See how the tweets unfold, how information is launched into the stream and shaped by the flow, how waves break, and how unexpected voices can influence the conversation. I had an early tip on Nelson Mandela’s final decline and began following the story on Twitter. At first, the hashtag #mandela gave me news of a film premiere in London where the royals were soon expected. This then gave way to speculation that Mandela was living his last hours. I learned that following #mandela would give me the perspective of the Western media, whereas #madiba would yield local accounts of the developing scene. I received not only the news but also powerful personal emotions from people that added nuance and substance to the story.

As you prepare for your next crisis leadership moment, remember that waves are waves and streams are streams, and you’re going to get wet no matter what. Knowing how to surf and swim can make all the difference.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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