The Role of Culture in Crisis Communications

When we talk about crisis communications, we often think of legal teams, public relations, risk management and operations.

What we often miss is human resources and the role of culture. Culture is critical to responding well to a crisis, and it’s easy to err on either of two sides that are greatly impacted by culture – too much transparency or too little transparency.

Transparent Cultures
Transparency is an important aspect of many of the best corporate cultures in the country. Associates in transparent cultures feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, and are more motivated to grow the business and collaborate with other departments.

Unfortunately, transparency in these cultures can often mean sharing information the moment it’s first heard – before facts can be confirmed and the drawbacks of sharing fully considered. You can thank the 24-hour news cycle for that misunderstanding.

When a crisis hits, you can’t share everything the moment you think you know the facts. I’ve managed way too many crises in which what is known minutes after the incident changes drastically two hours later. The last thing you want to do is share information immediately without confirming facts and waiting for the investigation to develop, especially with the media and residents.

Taking a breath and letting information develop is key to ensuring you don’t say something false, misleading or down-right inappropriate that can lead to lawsuits, an erosion of trust with residents and severe reputation damage. I often recommend waiting several hours after a crisis strikes before putting out a communication to ensure information is accurate.

Another way in which transparency creates some challenges is sharing details that accuse an innocent person of a crime or allow a victim of abuse to be identified against their wishes. If you have a transparent culture, which is a very good thing, make sure your onsite teams know the limits when it comes to crises. Transparency is good most of the time, but it can be problematic when facts aren’t confirmed and privacy is invaded.

Less Transparent Cultures
Some cultures aren’t transparent. They are very regimented, risk-averse and process oriented. While they aspire to be transparent, often they take too long to confirm facts, ensure everything is vetted down to the last detail and follow a long and laborious process.

These cultures can be comforting to work in because you know that everything shared with you was highly considered and is always accurate. They can also be frustrating because everything takes too long to get done, associates can feel micromanaged and everything seems secretive because of the amount of time it takes to respond to incidents.

In a crisis situation, this can be very problematic. Residents want to know why five police cars, a swat team and a host of TV news crews were in front of the community, and they want to know as soon as possible. Taking too long to respond in order to ensure every detail is accounted for will make you appear as though you’re hiding something, even if you really do want to let them know about it. This erodes trust, which will negatively impact your ability to manage residents, resulting in more move-outs at renewal and poor ratings on review sites.

Another problem with not being transparent enough is negative media attention. Members of the media trade in a different kind of currency – information. Failing to provide them enough information often leads to negative coverage, even if you’re doing all the right things. Ignoring or refusing to provide them information when reasonable requests are made forces them to run stories without your response or the facts.

If you have a less-than-transparent culture, it’s important to find a way to streamline processes and overcome hesitancies to ensure you are able to respond quickly enough to crises and communicate effectively with residents and the media.

Regardless of whether you have a transparent or less transparent culture, communicating during a crisis is easier said than done. Consider securing a public relations agency with multifamily experience to ensure you manage crises well. And don’t forget about the role of culture in crisis communication so you can avoid the pitfalls.

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