Communication During a Crisis

Unpredictability and urgency. These two words are usually accompanied with a significant threat to an organization. In the event that this does occur, crisis communication is necessary. So what exactly is a crisis? A crisis is defined as a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting the organization, company, or industry. A crisis interrupts normal business transactions and can sometimes threaten the existence of the organization. So every organization must have several things in place to effectively deal with a crisis: crisis management and crisis communications. Crisis management is a process of strategic planning for a crisis. This process helps to remove some of the risks and uncertainty from the negative occurrence. Crisis communications is the dialog between the organization and its public(s) prior to, during, and after the negative occurrence (source: Toward an Ethical Model of Effective Crisis Communication).

Ironically both of the states that are near and dear to me both are undergoing major crises right now. I currently reside in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, is undergoing a major crisis involving sexual allegations with senior aide, Rebekah Mason. I was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. Mississippi recently passed a religious freedom bill that has not only enraged the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community, but is also causing a reflection of the state's shameful past. Both crises are indeed horrendous for both states but let us dissect both and look out how both states are majorly impacted. Perhaps the crisis management team could have taken a different approach that might have effectively did more damage control.

Let’s start with Alabama. I think Gov. Bentley’s crisis originated when his wife filed for divorce in 2015. It is at this time that Gov. Bentley should have openly communicated with the public exactly what was going on. Had he been forthcoming and honest, the public may have been empathetic or perhaps more forgiving because they would not think he was trying to hide anything. The “what” “how” and “when” are essential elements in affective crisis communication. Not long after the divorce was filed, the scandal broke loose. Just to bring you up to speed, if you are somehow unaware, Gov. Bentley was accused, by former head of Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Spencer Collier, of having sexual relations with his chief advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Collier claims that he investigated audio recordings and text messages of a “sexual nature” between the two (source: AL.Com). Timely communication is as equally important in the event that a crisis occurs. Timely communication helps to mitigate potential harm. The “what” is transparency. Gov. Bentley was not transparent, whatsoever. Transparency helps the public to understand, and with Gov. Bentely not being transparent, he never gave the public the opportunity to understand, which automatically makes him look like the culprit in this scandal. This makes it that much harder to try to right this wrong, the damage cannot be undone.

Now let's take a look at the state of Mississippi. My state has been dubbed the “last place to change”. The state has often been ridiculed as being “illiterate” and “behind” not to mention “dull” or “boring”. In case you are unaware, (I am not quite sure how you haven’t heard, seeing as it has made national headlines on news outlets everywhere), Mississippi governor, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a controversial religious freedom bill Tuesday, a piece of legislation that gay rights groups and the state's businesses have decried as discriminatory (source: Mississippi passes religious freedom bill that LGBT groups call discriminatory). Upon finding out, I was appalled, to say the least. I actually happened to be on Twitter when the religious freedom bill was past and the negative backlash was harsh, to say the least. The bill has caused those who already had negative views of the state, to add more fuel to fire, and has also created enemies out of those who may have once supported and thought highly of the state. Because Mississippi is my hometown the comments I read on social media regarding the literacy and integrity of Mississippians infuriated me. This caused the entire world to take a fine toothed comb and comb through Mississippi’s horrible past which is stained by civil rights-era and prejudice. You would think that with desegregation being a history that Mississippi wants to leave behind, that the state would steer clear of discrimination of any sort. In this crisis, Mississippi should tailor crisis messages tailored for every different kind of audience, with the most important audience appeased first.

Such terrible headlines takes away from all of the positive things that Mississippi stands for, such as “the birthplace of America’s music”. Mississippi was a part of the Americana music tour, which just recently wrapped up in and I was informed of band cancellations and decreased ticket sales after this crisis erupted. For Mississippi, timing is everything and they must “tell it all, tell it fast” because the key here is limiting the damage and restoring “credibility”. Unfortunately individual cities within the state cannot respond without facing legal action from the government. However, one of my clients made it a point to get on social media stating that “everyone is welcome” in her city. The damage was already done, the moment Gov. Bryant passed the law, so it is crucial that Mississippi businesses do everything that they can to mitigate the damage.

Just last weekend, First Lady Michelle Obama, targeted Mississippi's religious freedom bill in her commencement speech at Jackson State University's commencement ceremony. "We see it right here in Mississippi -- just two weeks ago -– how swiftly progress can hurtle backward," Obama said. "How easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love." (source: First Lady Targets Mississippi 'Religious Freedom' Bill in Commencement Speech). I would love to live to see the day that the state of Mississippi makes national headlines for something positive and good, instead of receiving the negative backlash from something so horrific and demeaning.

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