Words That Work

Acting swiftly and authentically, ensuring transparency, building trust—the demands placed on communicating with stakeholders are especially high in a crisis. In such situations social media are both a blessing and a curse.


Clear and unmistakable communication is a must for the police. Choosing the right words is also of crucial importance for companies and organizations during a crisis.ddp images/Sven Simon

Munich, the cap­i­tal of the state of Bavaria, was in a state of shock on July 22, 2016. In the early evening, short­ly before 6 pm, an eigh­teen-year-old man had opened fire in the dis­trict of Moosach and killed nine peo­ple in a quar­ter of an hour. Rumors and reports of the assault spread through social media like wild­fire. Still very present in the minds of Munich’s res­i­dents was the Islamist ter­ror­ist attack in Paris just eight months before, which had killed 130 peo­ple and injured anoth­er 683.

The hor­rif­ic events in Munich came to a close at 8:30 pm when the rad­i­cal right-wing shoot­er killed him­self. But the pub­lic was deeply shaken—and all kinds of false reports had already been spread­ing for a few hours. The fact that the police depart­ment suc­ceed­ed in reas­sur­ing res­i­dents and con­trol­ling the nar­ra­tive in the sea of infor­ma­tion is a trib­ute to the work of the team led by Mar­cus da Glo­ria Mar­tins, the head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lic rela­tions of the Munich police. In calm and clear terms they pro­vid­ed pre­cise­ly what the pub­lic need­ed to hear: direc­tions, facts—and final­ly the all-clear.

“In 2016, we learned how to use social media to com­mu­ni­cate in a cri­sis,” says da Glo­ria Mar­tins, adding that this was no sim­ple task. Among other things, dozens of emer­gency calls were made on July 22 describ­ing addi­tion­al crimes, includ­ing shoot­ings and deaths. A total of sev­en­ty-three such phan­tom crimes were com­piled by the police in the wake of the actu­al assault.

Communicating on social media in crises

The rea­son for incor­rect reports on social media is increas­ing­ly evi­dent: users do not ver­i­fy what they read and sim­ply pass on erro­neous infor­ma­tion. The many sirens and flash­ing lights on the streets of Munich at the time also inten­si­fied the degree of anxiety.

Crises and extreme sit­u­a­tions like this one invari­ably show that estab­lish­ing an author­i­ta­tive pres­ence when dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion is not only desir­able but also essen­tial. False reports can spread all too rapid­ly, and fake news can poi­son the entire atmos­phere. The out­break of Covid-19 shows yet again that the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate in a cri­sis is cru­cial. Ten­ta­tive results of stud­ies and poor­ly researched but quick­ly pub­lished sto­ries that lack a basis in fact—combined with con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, mis­in­for­ma­tion, and fear—lead to extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions, espe­cial­ly on social media such as Face­book and Twit­ter. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) warned of what it called an “info­dem­ic” right at the start of the corona­virus cri­sis. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion teams in Gene­va and at region­al offices in Braz­zav­ille, Cairo, Copen­hagen, Mani­la, New Delhi, and Wash­ing­ton have been work­ing since Feb­ru­ary 2020 to counter the spread of rumors with facts.

Not saying anything will not do you any good.

Paul Argenti
Professor of Corporate Communication, Tuck School of Business, Hanover, New Hampshire

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing effec­tive­ly is also a cru­cial com­po­nent of cri­sis man­age­ment in busi­ness. It is the way in which a com­pa­ny can favor­ably influ­ence fac­tors such as pub­lic opin­ion. “Going about their busi­ness with­out cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tion is short­sight­ed,” says Paul Argen­ti, an econ­o­mist and pro­fes­sor of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Busi­ness in Hanover, New Hampshire.

The goal of cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions is to work around any crises fac­ing the organization—or to get through them suc­cess­ful­ly. But the req­ui­site means and mea­sures have changed con­sid­er­ably in recent years. “Social media changed the way com­mu­ni­ca­tion is done. Con­tent pro­duc­tion is no longer con­trolled by indi­vid­ual agents but a joint effort of a large num­ber of peo­ple,” Argen­ti says. It’s not an option for busi­ness­es to refrain from engag­ing, he adds, because soci­ety expects them to take a stance: “Not say­ing any­thing will not do you any good.”

Crisis communications at companies

What does that mean for com­pa­nies? They need a strong cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions team. In addi­tion to employ­ees with the usual back­grounds in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the team should also include high-level man­age­ment per­son­nel because they have the author­i­ty to lend state­ments the req­ui­site exter­nal cred­i­bil­i­ty. It’s also absolute­ly essen­tial to have some­one with the right cre­den­tials on the respec­tive topic—a lead­ing fig­ure from the health man­age­ment depart­ment, for exam­ple, in the case of the corona­virus cri­sis. The team’s deci­sion­al pow­ers are anoth­er impor­tant factor—as is a clear­ly defined scope of action. “We have a very lean hier­ar­chy because we enjoy a high level of trust with­in the force. That makes us incred­i­bly quick and agile,” says da Glo­ria Mar­tins from Munich’s police depart­ment. 

The choice of words used by Munich’s police to inform the city’s res­i­dents both then and now is defined on three lev­els. The first level con­sists of using objec­tive for­mu­la­tions, with as lit­tle emo­tion­al con­tent as pos­si­ble. The sec­ond level seeks to address people’s feel­ings. “We want to have a sta­bi­liz­ing effect and a human con­nec­tion,” says da Glo­ria Mar­tins. And the third level is dia­logue, with the police invest­ing strong­ly in com­mu­ni­ty man­age­ment on social media.


Communicating in Crises

When dark clouds gather and a storm of outrage threatens the image and therefore also the future of a company, a crisis communications team that can act with speed and sensitivity is needed. Here are some additional crucial factors for effective communication in crises:
  • Ensure transparency: When mistakes are made, they need to be identified as such. If a specific course of action is not yet clear, the response should be one of sincerity as opposed to premature defensiveness.
  • Specify the scope of action: Companies that have already assigned clear responsibilities to their team members can respond faster to crises. The flatter the hierarchy, the simpler the process.
  • Show authenticity: Companies can—and should—show empathy. A compassionate tone is convincing—especially on social media.
  • Take a stance: Declining every opportunity to engage is harmful. A position is needed.
  • Involve employees: This is the foundation of crisis communications—when employees support their company, they will represent it in authentic ways.

Transparency and the right words

The impor­tance of find­ing the right words became clear in the U.S. when com­pa­nies began adapt­ing their week­ly mar­ket­ing e‑mails to the corona­virus cri­sis. Many of the mes­sages showed a sim­i­lar ten­den­cy to put aggres­sive sales pitch­es on hold. One exam­ple comes from the Cuyana cloth­ing start-up, which was launched in Cal­i­for­nia in 2011 with an express inter­est in sus­tain­abil­i­ty. In a state­ment in late March 2020, co-founders Karla Gal­lar­do and Shilpa Shah called the need to lay off numer­ous employ­ees “try­ing to sur­vive the cur­rent moment.” They described the sit­u­a­tion with dis­ap­point­ment and sad­ness, but placed these emo­tions with­in the con­text of a much more seri­ous sit­u­a­tion, name­ly, the pan­dem­ic: “While our chal­lenges may be dif­fer­ent, we are all being uni­fied by a com­mon expe­ri­ence.” With a mes­sage expressed in empa­thet­ic and authen­tic terms, the founders con­veyed sym­pa­thy and under­stand­ing for their cus­tomers and could there­by fore­stall poten­tial­ly neg­a­tive repercussions.

The fact that com­pa­nies, too, can express emo­tion when con­vey­ing bad news was shown by Arne Soren­son, CEO of the U.S.-based Mar­riott Inter­na­tion­al com­pa­ny, which is the world’s largest chain of hotels. In a video mes­sage, he talked about the Covid-19 cri­sis and the hard­est moment in his career. Calm­ly and with a smile, he com­ment­ed on per­son­al mat­ters such as his “new bald look” due to med­ical treat­ments, and pre­sent­ed bleak eco­nom­ic fig­ures with the same com­po­sure. His voice then broke as he described the hotel sector’s help­less­ness in the face of the pan­dem­ic, but he con­clud­ed his mes­sage with opti­mism: “I have never been more deter­mined to see us through.”

You have to be quick, transparent, and honest.

Marcus da Gloria Martins
Head of Communications and Public Relations, Munich Police Department

This shows that open engage­ment by orga­ni­za­tions and com­pa­nies is a com­pelling com­po­nent of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with stake­hold­ers. In a cri­sis, that means com­mu­ni­cat­ing as early and reg­u­lar­ly as pos­si­ble, even if the extent and con­se­quences of the sit­u­a­tion are not yet clear. The first pri­or­i­ty is to keep the company’s own employ­ees informed, because exter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions can only work if there is a solid inter­nal foun­da­tion. After all, employ­ees are also always ambas­sadors for their companies.

Dealing with mistakes

What should be done if mis­takes are made? “Admit them, explain why they hap­pened, how you’re going to fix them, and why they’re not going to hap­pen again,” says Argen­ti, speak­ing in his role as pro­fes­sor of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This approach can enable orga­ni­za­tions to over­come prac­ti­cal­ly any­thing. Police spokesper­son da Glo­ria Mar­tins agrees. One doesn’t have to keep con­vey­ing the desire to save the world: “You have to be quick, trans­par­ent, and honest.”

This can be a dif­fi­cult task to keep in mind dur­ing the fraught hours in Munich or in other crises. Yet such sit­u­a­tions always offer a way for an orga­ni­za­tion or com­pa­ny to pre­pare for the future—with a sus­tain­able image that also brings eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits. Dur­ing the Covid-19 cri­sis, this can mean sup­port­ing fact-check­ers or tak­ing other steps to build close con­nec­tions with the pub­lic and with stakeholders—who will not for­get this when bet­ter times return.

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