As unexpected storms arise in the public arena more and more often, where even an innocent cauliflower can become the most popular character of the week, a person can start thinking how far communication and public relations go as technologies improve and socialization increases. Tools and possibilities to communicate are becoming more and more numerous and varied every day, but do we know how to use them property to their full extent? Do we know what to do in a case something goes wrong?
Theory and practice
According to Andrius Kasparavičius, the head of the agency Komunikacija ir Konsultantai, there have been discussions about crisis communication going on in the public relations community for a long time already, but all those talks are mostly theoretical – possible situations are simulated, past events are discussed, specific acts are analysed. „There are theoretical considerations that public relations specialists should foresee crises and get ready for them in advance”, he said. Only there a tiny problem here – each crisis is different and often so unique that foreseeing and guessing future events is probably a mission impossible.
Most prominent police crises
As we are engaged in theoretical considerations, others experience those crises and feel their impact on themselves. And experience is probably the best teacher. Ramūnas Matonis, the head of the communication division of the Lithuanian police, remembered three major communication crises he personally encountered in one or another within 10 years of his practice. The whole of Lithuania certainly remembers them well, too. Those crises included an event in Skuodas district at the end of 2007 that shook everyone, when a drunk police officer killed three ten-year-olds in a traffic accident, the notorious Garliava paedophilia scandal and, finally, a rather recent story of a captured Kalashnikov gun. It is probably easiest to remember and evaluate the last one. The head of communication was on vacation at that time and learned about the event right after he left the plane, in other words – he suddenly found himself at the very zest of the problem. “We were somewhat late to react that time, as we announced about the event and published the suspect’s photo only after about one hour. However, afterwards, we used more efforts and communicated really a lot”, R. Matonis remembers.
Kasparavičius reveals: “The Lithuanian police can be praised for a very successful communication not only in traditional media but also on Facebook. It is a perfect example for all other state and public institutions, which often generally avoid speaking or do not think it is necessary to comment on anything.”
Actually, in case of this communication crisis, when a gross mistake seriously undermined trust in the police as a whole, persons responsible for communication did not get lost and started giving small details about each action performed by the police – they were regularly notifying the media and the population about the course of the operation. “We were actively working for over 5 hours until he got caught”, R. Matonis remembers. “And then, at night, we organised a press conference right away and all management took part in it. It was directly broadcast by several televisions.”
How long does a crisis take?
It is a perpetual question – when can one say that a crisis is over? When can one already end the communication period and resume other work that was probably forgotten during the crisis? After you put down fire in one place, can you be sure that it will not start in another place? Let’s remember the long-discussed story of the Kalashnikov gun. When did everything end? “I think, people started to forget about the event only upon completion of the pre-trial investigation, after we published the escape material and informed the public what penalties would be imposed on the officers at fault, i.e. about 2 months later”, Ramūnas spoke. “Therefore, it is obvious that once a communication crisis happens, it will be remembered for a long time and a public relations specialist must be ready to speak about it and provide information practically at any time – even when it already seems that everyone has long forgotten everything.”
The practice of getting ready for crises and planning them is still a very rare phenomenon in our country. “It seems that it is more relevant for large international companies. It is probably so because companies in general tend to save money in case of public relations as a non-priority field and optimistically believe that “it will not happen to me”, A. Kasparavičius says. However, it is obvious from public examples that it is very advisable to have a plan of several possible steps to be taken in case of a crisis situation.
Matonis thinks that it is important to stick to the main rule of managing a communication crisis both when planning crisis situations and in case problems actually arise. “All information must come from one source, i.e. it must be uniform and approved”, he says. According to him, the Lithuanian police have emergencies headquarters and, in case of a problematic situation, management and communication specialists gather there and decide what to do next.
So, what are those main golden rules that must not be forgotten in the event of a crisis? Probably no one will object that today one of the essential principles in case of an unexpected and unpleasant event is not to keep silent, i.e. to explain, to share, to speak, etc., no matter how unpleasant it may be. Well, we live in an era of social networks and huge information flows. “Closing up, hiding and not giving any comments would be an inexcusable mistake”, A. Kasparavičius says. Actually, if you decide to keep silent, there will be persons who will talk instead of you and most frequently these will not be pleasant things. In a crisis situation, often at least two camps are formed – those who support or understand and those who condemn. In order that the latter camp would not win, it is necessary to voice your opinion and explain the situation. According to R. Matonis, expeditiousness is very important in a crisis situation, i.e. to share information as fast as possible. “It is also very important to tell the truth and the very information must come from one source in order that people would not be confused and misled”, the head of communication listed the main rules.
Matonis’ position was supported by A. Kasparavičius: “Probably expeditiousness and freedom are closely related to trust in the person who communicates. If people trust the person who announces information and he has the power to decide and behave at his own discretion here and now, many crises can be avoided altogether. It is the ultimate objective of public relations specialists. The more fires can be put down before they start, the happier both the client and the person who communicates are.”
How to avoid?
The head of communication of the Lithuanian police remembers a possible outbreak of a crisis that could have recently started. After use of an electric shocker in the centre of Vilnius, a businessman was arrested and taken to the police office. As a cell phone was not taken away from him, his started uploading photos from the police office to his Facebook account and telling how badly he was treated. Then the head, who was communicating by phone with colleagues in the police office, started asking his colleagues what to do and how to behave in this unpleasant situation. “As it was already evening, everyone suggested waiting for the next business day when everything would be already clear and only then to decide what to do next. However, the situation seemed out of control for me then, therefore, without consulting anyone, I took a decision myself – we announced the position of the police officers in the same social network. We explained that we were not seeking to declare any absolute truth, we were simply stating our position”, R. Matonis remembers. “And, to my surprise, that was enough for managing the crisis. To tell the truth, the businessman who was expressing his discontent and publishing photos from the police office personally deleted all information he had published.” That is just another perfect example how, in case of proper and timely reaction, one can prevent a greater communication crisis. Of course, trust in a public relations specialist is very important here. “Well, I can actually just express my joy that sometimes I can allow myself to behave not strictly according to our instructions and without a prior approval of our management, as it would actually take long and would often even be too late”, the head of communications said.
Is big freedom always good?
On the other hand, it seems that in state institutions such freedom is not a very frequent phenomenon, as one cannot see their representative openly communicating in the public. We asked R. Matonis how far police officers can go. Are there any restrictions for them to pronounce on one or another issue, to freely express their opinion with getting any prior approvals, etc.? “It is not very accurately and clearly regulated. Just recently we have had a situation, which made us think about it and start preparation of a relevant document”, the head of communications admitted. “I am talking about an event that attracted considerable public attention when a record about a drunk hostess of congratulations concerts was made public. Our policeman, who stopped her, announced his personal opinion about this event, which was not pre-approved by anyone, in his Facebook account. In my opinion, it would have been better if, before announcing his personal opinion, he had got his position preapproved by his supervisors and colleagues. On the other hand, he did not cause much damage and even on the contrary – he received considerable support. After this event we have talked for several times how one should communicate in the future, i.e. what should be avoided.”
Kasparavičius slightly contradicted his colleague and said that “namely such employees who freely express their opinion, who make statements very naturally and spontaneously, help to form not only their own image but the image of the institution as a whole, therefore it would be unreasonable to prohibit them from talking freely”. On the other hand, an opinion which is not approved and is debatable can be like a ticking bomb for a state institution – until the first failure. It is for this reason that strict rules must often be obeyed and consulting a colleague is always a good idea – a second look has never done any harm to anyone.
To erase the negative image
Still, no matter how well the Lithuanian police communicate, it is not able to totally erase the negative image. “It is sad that the police are still treated as some closed force structure”, R. Matonis said. “The institution also has older people, who have worked here for a long time already. They make rebukes and do not understand why the police publish information. They say that we do not need this. I cannot agree with them. Our actions and communication only proves that we are open and do not conceal anything. One of our long-term goals would be to prove that the Lithuanian police is not an outdated repressive force structure and when people hear the word “police”, they would think about an open and transparent organisation not afraid of committing any actions that would not have been tolerated some 10 years ago.”
These are nice and welcome aspirations. And crises management principles mentioned by our interlocutors – openness, truth dissemination, keeping in contact or expeditiousness – are a straight way towards creation of an image of trust. Actually, both state and public sector institutions should follow the example of the Lithuanian police and make brave public statements. Properly presented information and qualitative work of public relations specialists can help not only to manage arising crises but even to avoid them.