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  • Shabbir Akhtar

Understanding the organization and organizational leaders for effective Crisis Communication

Part 1 of the 5-Part Series on Crisis Communication


Before we start going deeper into Crisis Communication and Leadership, we need to first understand the organization and organizational leaders.


We first look at the C-suite leaders of organizations, who develop and execute organizational strategy (Argenti, 2017). According to Argenti’s (2017) study, C-suite leaders use consistent and constant two-way communication to execute strategy. Firstly, having a clearly articulated strategy that is understood consistently across all levels of the organization and is repeated through key phrases or buzz words is important (Argenti, 2017). Secondly, it is important to use two-way internal communication to foster a culture that is transparent, excites employees and makes them believe in the vision and values of the organization, thereby increasing productivity and creativity (Argenti, 2017). Finally, the presence and voice of an omnipresent and hyper-communicating leader is critical in times of crisis, transformation and change for the organization to return to normalcy (Argenti, 2017). While Argenti's (2017) study extensively looked at reputable and large organizations, it does not provide a roadmap for medium, small, or micro enterprises (MSMEs), which do not always have a communication practitioner as the leader or in the dominant coalition. organizations might not have the expertise or resources available to effectively communicate the strategy across all levels and ability to build a conducive culture. Moreover, while the leader could be omnipresent, he might not be open to two-way communication within the organization.


Nevertheless, I found Argenti’s (2017) study very relevant, especially in the ‘SMRT: Internal Crisis Leadership’ case (Pang & Appasamy, 2019). From the time Mr. Desmond Kuek became the CEO of SMRT, he not only rolled out a new strategy to improve the reliability of the organization, but also focused on employees and fostered an open culture of exchange and communication across the organization. When two trainees of SMRT lost their lives on the tracks in 2016, Mr. Desmond Kuek ensured that every impacted publics information demands are satisfied through regular communication using different channels, so that there is no information vacuum (Woon & Pang, 2017). The key publics – the next of kin, the employees, the media, and the government agencies – were directly communicated by him. Moreover, SMRT took strong crisis responsibility (Coombs, 2015), issued full apology (Coombs, 2014), and ensured that families of the deceased are continuously supported through their grieving process. Finally, with safety becoming a priority, SMRT took corrective actions (Coombs, 2014) to avoid a recurrence of the crisis and the slogan ‘Never Again’ was adopted to remind employees about the commitment towards safety.



Let us next look at the Contingency Theory, which helps determine the response strategy of an organization when making decision towards a crisis, based on the stance it takes on a continuum between ‘advocacy’ and ‘accommodation’ for each public involved (Pang et al., 2020). Mapping this continuum with the continuum of publics’ response stance to crisis communication, which has ‘confidence’ on one end and ‘doubt’ on the other, we see that organization’s ‘accommodation’ stance and publics’ ‘confidence’ stance have a spiral relationship (Pang et al., 2020). In the ‘SMRT: Internal Crisis Leadership’ case (Pang & Appasamy, 2019) I saw this spiral relationship between organization’s accommodation stance and publics’ confidence stance into effect. While the commuters were initially anguished about the disruption of MRT service, they became more considerate when they were informed about the incident on the tracks and witnessed SMRT’s ingratiation strategy (Coombs, 2014) of providing various compensations to help them commute to their destinations. With the facts surfacing that the cause of the incident was negligence of protocols, the publics’ stance became doubtful although SMRT continued to be accommodating.


But, with SMRT continuing to be accommodating over time, publics’ confidence in them has been restored. While this is an exhaustive theory, a question remains; would MSMEs have the resources and capabilities to comprehend and apply this theory to frame response strategies when making decision on a crisis?


References:

Argenti, P. A. (2017). Strategic communication in the c-suite. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(2), 146-160. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2329488416687053

Coombs, W. T. (2014). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing, and responding. Sage Publications.

Coombs, W. T. (2015). The value of communication during a crisis: Insights from strategic communication research. Business Horizons, 58(2), 141–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2014.10.003

Pang, A., & Appasamy, L. (2019). SMRT: Internal Crisis Leadership. Centre for Management Practice: Singapore Management University. SMU-19-0007TN

Pang, A., Jin, Y., Kim, S. & Cameron, G. (2020). 6. Contingency theory: Evolution from a public relations theory to a theory of strategic conflict management. In F. Frandsen & W. Johansen (Ed.), Crisis Communication (pp. 141-164). De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110554236-006

Woon, E., & Pang, A. (2017). Explicating the information vacuum: stages, intensifications, and implications. Corporate Communications, 22(3), 329–353. https://doi.org/10.1108/CCIJ-10-2016-0066

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