The COVID-19 pandemic, wars, economic downturns, mass shootings, natural disasters, political and corporate scandals... The world we live in seems wrought with crises.
From a historical perspective, however, the present era is a relatively peaceful one. In contrast, the communication and media landscape surrounding us has experienced an upheaval. Social media shines a spotlight on phenomena and events that would previously not have received a passing mention. It also brings large-scale catastrophes closer to regular people.
"These days, anyone – not only professional journalists – can capture footage on their phones and release it to the larger public. That’s made crisis communication more important," states Anna Rantasila, university lecturer at LUT.
What is crisis communication and how does it differ from regular communication?
Crisis communication is, literally, communication in a crisis – a situation that is surprising, sudden and undesirable and that involves rapidly changing and unclear information.
Whereas regular communication is pre-emptive and focuses on the future, crisis communication is reactive and takes place in the moment. Crisis communication is a mixture of internal and external communication, reputation management, and keeping people up to date.
"Crisis communication is required in a wide range of situations from major accidents and natural disasters to product recalls and corporate reputation crises, such as inappropriate behaviour by key people or failed ad campaigns," Rantasila lists.
Good crisis communication needs to be open, transparent, consistent and, in certain respects, also planned. Crisis communication is a skill that can be rehearsed.
"In the past, it was mainly national governments, municipalities and large multinational corporations that needed crisis communication expertise, but now, a wider array of actors need it because anyone can end up in the middle of a social media storm."
How do you define successful crisis communication? What about unsuccessful crisis communication?
The difference between successful and unsuccessful crisis communication is the same as between successful and unsuccessful communication in general. Successes may not be noticed by outsiders, but people tend to remember failures.
As an example of a success, Rantasila mentions the first COVID spring in Finland.
"The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the Government, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health all conveyed the same coordinated message."
However, the same crisis also serves as an example of failed communication. As the pandemic dragged on, pressures grew, and authorities started sending conflicting messages. The situation culminated in public bickering between the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, as they criticized each other through different media outlets.
"That's not a desirable turn of events. However, it would have been an exceptional achievement if all parties involved had been able to communicate flawlessly in a new, complicated, high-pressure situation," she assesses.
What will crisis communication be like in the future and how is LUT University shaping it?
Communication – including crisis communication – is examined in both social sciences and business studies at LUT. In addition, LUT's communication sciences students have the opportunity to study crisis communication at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. In bachelor's studies, it’s explored through simulations.
“Getting to rehearse crisis communication in practice is extremely valuable. The skills will be useful especially in the corporate world in the future, but also elsewhere,” Rantasila says.
Technology can also be utilized in crises and crisis communication. In Japan, for example, people receive an automatic push notification on their phone when an earthquake forecasting system senses an impending earthquake, giving people a heads-up to seek shelter.
Rantasila estimates that generative artificial intelligence could at some point become a crisis communication tool for tasks such as preparing press release templates. However, AI will never replace humans as communicators.
”Artificial intelligence and other technologies can’t capture the human dimension of communication. Crisis communication requires empathy and interaction to alleviate people’s uncertainty about the future.”