Reactive or proactive? 7 Factors for effective crisis communication for international meetings

Including a Crisis communication checklist to prepare before an event

This article is included in ICCA’s new white paper “Crisis Communication Guidelines”, designed for association executives and meetings management companies to plan, prepare, manage, and recover from any crisis situation, and created in cooperation with Safehotels Alliance, the originator of The Global Hotel Security Standard ©,

Caption: (fltr) Mathijs Vleeming, Communication Strategist of ICCA, Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA and Hans Kanold, CEO of Safehotels launch the new Crisis Management Guidelines document at IMEX in Frankfurt.

(fltr) Mathijs Vleeming, Communication Strategist of ICCA, Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA and Hans Kanold, CEO of Safehotels launch the new Crisis Management Guidelines document at IMEX in Frankfurt.

If you had a crisis on your hands tomorrow, would you know how to respond and communicate your message to the world quickly and effectively?

In 2012, when we first ran into a potential crisis situation related to an outbreak of dengue fever in our ICCA Congress location in Puerto Rico (the first of two ICCA Congress case studies included in the crisis management document), ICCA did not have any Crisis Communication plans in place. So we had to make up our response on the fly, by just using common sense and a practical eye on PR and communication. We learned a number of things from this first encounter, and we were able to use the same principles at our 2014 ICCA Congress in Antalya, Turkey, when dealing with the ISIS situation and the war on the Syrian border and the related protests within Turkey, as well as an outbreak of Ebola.

What is crisis communication?

Let’s start off with a definition of crisis communication. Communication scholars define crisis communication as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organisation’s performance and generate negative outcomes”. The aim of effective crisis management and crisis communication is to reduce the amount of damage the organisation receives as a result of the crisis, and even to prevent an incident from ever developing into a crisis (Coombs, W. Timothy (2007), Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding, Los Angeles: Sage).

These two case studies are both not examples of immediate or urgent crisis management directly after an incident or a disaster, but reflect the situation of dealing with geopolitical challenges and a potential crisis in the run up to an event. This is a situation that many event organisers have to deal with. Before going into the case studies I will share some general principals and steps we learned from these 2 real life situations.

7 factors for effective crisis communication for international meetings, to be included in a Crisis Communication Plan:

  1. Set up a Crisis Communication Team for every major event

Streamline communications by setting up a Crisis Communication Team and creating a policy for all stakeholders (Staff; Board of Directors) to inform the members of this team on any issues related to the crisis situation they run in to. This team is responsible for managing the crisis and its communication strategy, and for formulating the key messages to be communicated. Typically this team would include the CEO or most senior leader, the head of the Events department and the person responsible for corporate communication.

  1. Stick to the facts: be responsible and transparent and provide neutral advice

Be open and transparent: The aim of your communication is to draw a realistic and responsible picture of the situation. In a (potential) crisis situation, media tend to go overboard in their search for sensation and create a mood of fear and terror. The goal of your crisis communication is to give responsible advice and factual information to delegates in order to draw a fair and balanced picture of the situation, and not create more fear than is realistically needed. It is very important to base your communication on official and impartial information, and include links to these impartial sources. You should give factual information and scientific and medical advice. Examples of these sources are the World Health Organisation’s website, official statements from governments and large political bodies like the UN or EU, and official travel advice from National Ministries of Foreign Affairs.

  1. Create a central hub of information

Structure your communication by creating a webpage which functions as a central hub of current and factual information on the situation. This page can include (links to) official scientific and medical advice, impartial information on the local situation, statements of official spokespersons, maps to display areas affected by the crisis situation, press releases and FAQs related to the crisis situation. Constantly update this landing page and refer to it in all your communication.

  1. Identify official spokespersons

Make it clear to everyone involved who is allowed to make official comments on behalf of your organisation. Brief staff and Board that they should refer to statements of official spokespersons and should not make any comments or answer any questions from worried delegates of media themselves. Include email addresses and mobile phone numbers of these official spokespersons in your Crisis Communication Plan, so you can quickly reach them in urgent situations. In our case our official spokespersons include ICCA’s CEO and President, the Chairman of the Local Host Committee of the Congress and the Managing Director of the local PCO. Make sure these spokespersons are briefed on how to deal with media in a time of crisis.

See also: Mastering the Media – When the media spotlight is on you in times of crisis. By Tina Altieri. Journalist, TV Presenter, Managing Principal, Media Australasia Xchange(MAX)

  1. Identify communication channels

Create a list of all communication channels you have available, both on-and offline (in case of loss of power supply), and include contact details of persons responsible for managing the channel. This makes it easier to choose the channels to communicate the key messages formulated by the crisis communications team, and makes sure you are not forgetting any. In our case this list includes:

  1. Key question: Reactive or proactive communication strategy?

Crisis communication strategy very much evolves around this big question: When to move from reactive to proactive communication? In other words: When to move from only answering questions from concerned delegates or media looking for a story, to a proactive approach by proactively going out with emails and press releases to inform delegates and the public about the situation and the measurements taken? When going out proactively, will we do more harm than good by raising more awareness for the situation resulting in more people being afraid of it and possibly cancelling their Congress attendance, or does the situation call for a proactive approach to calm down the situation? This is a thin line to balance on.

Closely monitor the situation to decide when to move from reactive to proactive

In a reactive strategy it is crucial to closely monitor the situation, based on:

  • Impartial and official sources
  • Locals on the ground: the event’s Local Host Committee
  • Feedback from delegates: When many more delegates are starting to show concerns, you might have to move from reactive to proactive. This is why it is crucial that the Crisis Communication Team stays up to date on each and every concern expressed by delegates.

In deciding your strategy, put yourself in the shoes of a delegate and question yourself if you would want to be proactively informed on the situation if you were about to travel to the event?

As the case studies are showing, there is a grey area between the reactive and proactive approach: In a reactive strategy it might already make sense to post FAQ questions and answers on the (potential) crisis situation when more people are starting to show concerns, so that people looking for information can easily find it and you are not appearing to be ignoring the situation. You could also include a message on a potential crisis situation in your regular communication about the event.

  1. Think about the external communication procedure in case of an immediate emergency during the event

In case of an immediate emergency during the event, the emergency and evacuation plans of the local venues will take priority. In order to be prepared for the external communication, you can pre-define a procedure for the actions that should be taken. These steps could include:

  1. Convene a rapid response Crisis Communications team on-site, including official spokespersons, to determine action
  2. Define Key messages and statements
  3. Define communication channels

You can also pre-decide where to gather the crowd immediately after an evacuation would have taken place and once the venue has been cleared by local authority to be used again, in order to be able to give live statements to all event delegates immediately after the emergency.


Be prepared! Crisis communication checklist before an event:

  • Set up a Crisis Communication Team
  • Maintain a Communications Network with the Crisis Management Team
  • Identify official spokespersons
  • Prepare Positioning Statements & Background Material in Advance
  • Communicate the procedure for when the media comes calling to everyone involved
  • Identify communication channels
  • Think about the external communication procedure in case of an immediate emergency during the event
  • Maintain an Early Warning System to Monitor External Trends (Media monitoring alerts)
  • Create a central hub of factual information, and make this information public when needed

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The Crisis Management Guidelines are part of a series of ICCA publications, specifically designed for the international association community to assist organisers and delegates running more efficient and effective meetings. Associations can download the document by registering for the ICCA Association Portal on www.associations.iccaworld.com– a unique online platform providing a safe environment through which Association Executives could get in touch with peers to exchange valuable advice and information on their meetings. ICCA members can download the publication from the My ICCA section on www.iccaworld.com.

One comment on “Reactive or proactive? 7 Factors for effective crisis communication for international meetings

  1. Pingback: The 6 steps of PR crisis communication I learned from ABC’s Designated Survivor – Nichole Castagnino

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