Crisis Communication Competencies - do we have what it takes?

An overview of crisis communication skills, knowledge and attitudes in the absence of a capability framework

Dear reader,

In crisis communication, where there is so much at stake and constant change is the norm, it is only logical to assume that there would be a universally recognised competency framework to provide guidance for professionals in the field.

Surprisingly, however, there is no such official standard. At least not that I am aware of… So what does it take to truly excel in this field?

This post aims to fill that gap by outlining the indispensable skills that every crisis communications specialist should master, according to the research I found on the topic.

Some research.

Based on the research listed at the end of this post, I was able to condense the top competencies for Crisis Communicators as follows:

They need to clearly and concisely convey information, strategically analyse situations, and adapt to unexpected challenges. Organisational abilities are crucial for coordinating communication efforts, while honesty, openness, and transparency should be emphasised. Managing media relations is also essential.

It is critical for professionals in this field to apply best practises in crisis communication. This includes developing response plans and learning from experiences to improve preparedness. Building trust through collaboration with stakeholders is important as well.

By possessing these competencies, professionals are able to make well-informed decisions under pressure while maintaining public trust through open communication. Coordination across teams is enhanced as a result.

Effectively engaging with the media and continuously improving crisis response strategies are also significant aspects of effective crisis communication skills.

But what do the specialists and academic colleagues think?

I reached out to some of my esteemed colleagues, and here’s what they had to say:

In order to succeed, Crisis Communicators need to possess a wide range of skills.

Though not a comprehensive list, some of the most critical traits include an unflappable ability to operate in uncertainty, an insatiable curiosity to unravel mysteries, political savvy to navigate complex bureaucracies, decisiveness despite ambiguity, and top-notch communication skills to convey insights clearly.

The best Crisis Communicators have the patience of a detective, objectivity of a scientist, and emotional intelligence of a diplomat. They have an innate desire for knowledge and are adept at adapting to ambiguous situations.

Prof Timothy Coombs, Crisis Communication Researcher, Consultant, and Trainer

The modern crisis management room or emergency operations center

I think one of the most important elements is the ability to problem-solve but also to bring together lots of complex and often conflicting information and make it understandable in a genuine and authentic way.

Amanda Coleman, Crisis Communication Consultant and author of Crisis Communication Strategies

Crisis Communication leadership requires a good understanding of the context, business, and industry. It also requires the ability to plan strategically and tactically, and to balance systems and processes with experience.

It demands strong research and analytics capabilities, expertise in narrative development and storytelling, excellent writing skills, human empathy and understanding, and the willingness to provide objective, fearless and honest advice grounded in a strong sense of ethics and morality.

The most effective leaders also possess powers of influence and persuasion, exhibit flexibility, quick thinking and speed of movement.

Rod Cartwright, Crisis Communication Consultant.

In my view, having access to applied theory is probably the best competency. I'm not talking about traditional academic theory. I see theoretical knowledge as a toolbox to improve agility and reliability of rapid response. Instead, I'm referring to frameworks that help professionals diagnose problems quickly and develop and implement strategies.

Prof Audra Diers-Lawson, Professor of Risk and Crisis Communication, Kristiania University College

Based on the research I read and discussions with fellow professionals, I compiled a list of key qualities that make a Crisis Communication manager successful:

TRAITS

  • Decision-Making Confidence: Self-confidence and decisiveness are foundational for making rapid, informed choices in crisis situations.

  • Resilience and Energy: These traits enable sustained performance and long-term engagement, even under high stress.

  • Goal-Orientation and Accountability: The need for achievement and willingness to assume responsibility drive focused, accountable action.

  • Adaptability and Ethics: Flexibility allows for quick adaptation to changing scenarios, while service motivation and personal integrity ensure ethical decision-making.

  • Emotional Balance: Emotional maturity contributes to a balanced approach, enhancing reasoned and effective crisis management.

SKILLS

  • Communication Skills: Vital for clear, persuasive messaging.

  • Social Adeptness: Important for stakeholder engagement and team dynamics.

  • Ability to Influence and Negotiate: Crucial in resource allocation and conflict resolution.

  • Analytic Aptitude: Aids in problem identification and solution formulation.

  • Technical Competence: Ensures feasible and effective solutions.

  • Continual Learning: Enables adaptation to new challenges and technologies.

Many of these skills and traits are in line with organisational leadership skills, which have been documented and researched by many scholars. (See Monty Van Wart’s work below.)

The need for a commonly accepted Crisis Communication Capability Framework.

The need for a commonly accepted Crisis Communication Capability Framework.

The apparent lack of a globally accepted crisis communication capability framework is a major risk in our sector. The introduction of such a framework is not only beneficial but also a strategic necessity. This is the reason:

1. Standardisation: This refers to a single set of rules or protocols that ensure that everyone follows the same pattern. There will no longer be ad hoc approaches; we will have a baseline for capabilities and effectiveness.

2. Quality Control: This framework serves as our toolkit for quality assurance. It serves as a litmus test for assessing the robustness of crisis communication techniques and identifies both strengths and weaknesses.

3. Competency Development: Think of this framework as your career GPS. It describes the competencies you need to learn to stay on the cutting edge of crisis communication methods.

4. Interoperability: Silos are our worst enemy in a crisis. A common framework facilitates smooth cooperation, especially when numerous stakeholders and agencies are involved.

5. Credibility enhancement: A unified strategy not only improves our performance but also the reputation of the profession as a whole. It enhances credibility and increases public and stakeholder confidence.

Bottom line: a Crisis Communication Capability Framework is a must, not a nice-to-have. It ups our game, sharpens our skills, and increases our credibility. It is high time to put it into action.

What do you think? I look forward to hearing your thoughts; just hit reply.

If you prefer to listen to a short, abbreviated version of this article, you can do so below. You can also subscribe to the podcast from there.

  • McGuire, A.C. (2011). Crisis Communication Needs Assessment: A Delphi Study to Enhance Instruction for Agricultural Communicators and Other Stakeholders. (Link)

  • Granåsen, M., Olsén, M., Oskarsson, P., & Hallberg, N.L. (2019). Assessing Interorganizational Crisis Management Capability: A Systematic Literature Review. Int. J. Inf. Syst. Crisis Response Manag., 11, 38-56. (Link)

  • Palttala, P., & Vos, M. (2012). Quality Indicators for Crisis Communication to Support Emergency Management by Public Authorities. ORG: Communication Processes & Functions (Topic). (Link)

  • Tworzydło, D., Szuba, P., & Zajic, M. (2018). Features of Effective Crisis Communication Based on Public Relations Profession Research. Social Communication, 4, 128 - 135. (Link)

  • Fearn-Banks, K. (1996). Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach. (Link)

  • Van Wart, Monty. (2008). A Comprehensive Model of Organizational Leadership: The Leadership Action Cycle. International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior. 7. 173-208. 10.1108/IJOTB-07-02-2004-B002. (Link)

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