Guest contributor: Jo Detavernier, SCMP, APR – Owner of Detavernier Strategic Communication
Most communicators in large organizations who take the helm during a crisis have been well prepared for the moment.
They have been sufficiently trained to think strategically in a crisis, and very often have knowledge of Situational Crisis Communication Theory and Stealing Thunder, two theories that have been validated by ample data in the last decades and instruct communicators on the degree to which they should accommodate stakeholders in their response strategies and the need to communicate proactively when things go awry respectively.
Although communicators are well equipped to perform at a high enough strategic level when a crisis hits, in reality we often see communicators do the exact opposite. In 2018, an experiment with 80 Belgian and Dutch crisis communicators had one group of communications professionals be limited to four minutes to make a recommendation on a proper cause of action. This group reported back that the responses had “just come naturally to them.” What is going on? An-Sofie Claeys (Catholic University of Leuven – she is also the one who oversaw the aforementioned experiment) and Timothy Coombs (A&M Texas) have studied the phenomenon extensively and hold two heuristic biases responsible for the subpar performances of communicators in a crisis:
- Myopic loss aversion. People prioritize avoiding losses over pursuing gains. Crisis communicators want to avoid taking an immediate reputational hit (this is the “loss”) at all cost and will opt for example to not apply “Stealing thunder” principles.
- Hyperbolic discounting. Present rewards are weighted more favorably than future rewards. An immediate (perceived) gain (from for example the application of a denial strategy (SCTT) or through not communicating proactively about an incident (Stealing Thunder)) is perceived to be worth more than whatever reputational gains you could win in the long term by communicating appropriately now.
What causes the communicators to fall prey to the heuristic biases are the extreme conditions that occur during a crisis (time pressure, cognitive overload, etc.) causing what is often called “cognitive narrowing” to impede normal intellectual functioning.
Several debiasing techniques are available to come to the rescue. They fall within two categories. Let me share two examples for each category.
- Changes to the person: Communicators should not only be instructed about SCCT and Stealing Thunder, but also made aware that in a crisis they risk being biased. This will make them extra cautious when they make decisions in the heat of the moment. Another change to the person is the very mundane but nonetheless important care that needs to be given to making sure that people who need to make communications decisions in a crisis eat well and take regular short breaks.
- Changes to the environment: The introduction of a checklist can help communicators anticipate in a clear-headed manner the costs and benefits that are expected to come with all possible decisions. Another way to counter heuristic biases is to embed the debiasing in an organization’s routines and culture. This can be as simple as senior management repeating a proverb regularly that is meant to make sure that an important lesson is never forgotten (“We meant to protect our reputation in year X with the crisis on Y, but our thinking was shortsighted”).
To be clear, the role of crisis communications consultants is not limited in any of this to introducing debiasing techniques, but also includes making sure, through the design of efficient crisis communications processes, that the workload of people who make decisions in crisis communications is not burdened with tasks that can easily be picked up by others.
The two heuristic biases mentioned above are described in detail in a paper written by An-Sofie Claeys and Timothy Coombs on which I have largely based this lengthier article. That article also elaborates in more detail on the different debiasing techniques that exist.