Emergency communication

In all projects, sooner or later, the question of ’emergency communication’ comes up; i.e.: how do we communicate when there is an emergency?

My answer: the same way – just faster. If you are communicating well in normal times, the odds are that you will be just fine in the case of an emergency. With that I assume that you have the templates, the examples, the discipline, knowledge of the target groups, contact with the senders, etc. 

In short: the same checklist applies for emergencies, only the execution will be different. On the other hand, if you are lousy at communicating in normal project mode (i.e. always doing the lists from scratch, using the template of the day, having hard times to figure out who should be sending what to whom, etc.), you better pray for the communication fairy to save your ass when an emergency hits the fan (so to speak).

Why faster?

The bottom line is that emergency communication takes the same amount of preparation as normal communication. The only difference lies in the execution. The graph below (click the graph to enlarge) illustrates how normal communications and emergency communications differ from each other.  During normal times a reactive speed makes reliable communication (provided that you do your homework).


The importance of speed is shown by the white and grey area: they indicate a shifting relationship between reliability and paparazzi value when the sense of urgency is higher (i.e.: emergency). Grapevine and press leaks indicate that the stakes are different.

In emergency situations you need to be faster than grapevine and press leaks, but that  faster communication still needs to be reliable. The best way to do this is to use priority senders (mostly the ‘higher in rank’) and priority channels (special meetings, special emails, website banners in prime area’s, etc.) The point is that you should be aware that urgent messages need a specific channel and a particular sender in order to be reliable in the eyes of a receiver.

NOT: ‘Crisis’ or ‘Disaster’

Note that there is a difference between an emergency and a crisis or a disaster. An emergency is always a temporary exception of a normal business flow. 90% of emergencies come down to achieving the same results while not respecting the rules or the procedures. But after completing the emergency and correcting what was left out, things get back to normal. An emergency-flow can even be standardized, prepared and controlled.

A crisis and a disaster are different – they are not temporary, there is no way to plan or control them and they are disruptive: things do not get back to normal after a crisis or disaster.  To my opinion it is nonsense to prepare for crisis-communication or disaster communication in a project context (unless – of course – it is your core business: military operations, firefighters, police departments, etc.). 

Let’s be honest; in a business context you will not get the chance to communicate a crisis: other people will have replaced you by then: lawyers, interim managers or your boss’ boss … so let’s not have the illusion we can prepare a communication plan for crisis or disaster. Disciplined and well-prepared ‘normal’ communication covers emergencies and prevents the latter from becoming disasters – every other communication is beyond our reach.