Being creative in the face of crisis: How innovation plays a role in communication

August 1, 2011

The fight-or-flight response is a natural instinct triggered in a crisis. Weak leaders choose flight and strong leaders fight using basic crisis communication tactics. But the strongest leaders don’t stop at the basics.  They grow and innovate in every situation — even in a crisis.

Our team was the first responder after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters submerged New Orleans in August of 2005. Deveney established and manned the only on-site emergency media command post to manage more than 2,000 journalists from across the globe.

Five years later, the Louisiana Office of  Tourism asked the team to create a strategy to mitigate the financial impacts of the BP oil spill on the $9 billion Louisiana tourism industry.

Studies project that tourism will surpass pre-Katrina statistics in both number of visitors and visitor spending by 2013. We are already seeing the results: Hotel occupancy in Southern Louisiana increased by 13 percent from 2009 to 2010.

We achieved these results by adhering to our guideline to successfully navigate crises:  “The 4 Hard C’s of Crisis Communication.”  When creating a crisis communication plan, practitioners must be Quick, be Candid, place everything in Context and remain Consistent.

But within this equation, there is a critical fifth C: Creativity. Many companies forgo creative opportunities when confronted with a crisis because of the time crunch and high-intensity pressure of the situation.

However, there are easy ways to integrate innovation into disaster plans that will not only meet the needs of the crisis, but will also elevate the role of communication and create new opportunities for businesses in the face of public pressure.

Quick: In today’s world, ‘quick’ means ‘instant,’ which is why it is vital to leverage social media when confronting crises. Don’t limit yourself to basic tweets or Facebook posts. Get creative with social media: Set up a photo stream, create and promote a Twitter hashtag to discuss the crisis, interact with media and concerned citizens, host live video feeds — the opportunities are nearly limitless.

Candid: Be creative without impacting the sincerity of communication. Exercise creativity when selecting spokespeople and angle for their messaging. The best spokesperson has targeted knowledge about the situation, so consider choosing a technical director or head of a department, not the CEO.

This can streamline the accuracy of information to the media and also help preserve the organization’s control position. Reserve the use of higher officials for more serious communication or to correct or reverse a misstatement.

Context: Don’t feel locked into the context of the media narrative during a crisis. Remember, everyone wants the most accurate information. When the media inundated the world with photos of oil-covered pelicans, we needed to put the disaster in a context relative to state tourism.

We clarified that the vast majority of Louisiana’s “Sportsman’s Paradise” remained pristine and ready to be enjoyed — while still recognizing the severity of the environmental disaster in the Gulf.

The “Reel Louisiana” social media campaign encouraged residents and visitors to post videos and photos of themselves enjoying the outdoors. Use creative responses to show how well your organization adapts to tough situations. Don’t avoid the situation, but discover ways to place the rhetoric surrounding the crisis within an accurate and illustrative bigger picture.

Consistent: This may sound like the opposite of creative, but “consistent” doesn’t mean “dull.” In response to the BP oil spill, we developed an 86-member Experts Bureau featuring influencers from numerous industries and areas of expertise.  We updated the entire bureau on key messages as the situation progressed, so that all communication surrounding the disaster remained consistent.

By connecting these experts with targeted media inquiries, we ensured that the media received specific interview material within a consistent messaging platform.  You can create similar expert bureaus for any industry and they should be dynamically maintained as part of a crisis plan.

Creativity can mean several things when facing a crisis. During media training with a client, confront them with different dire scenarios.  This helpful exercise not only prepares them to manage worst-case scenarios, but also stimulates new ideas for crisis messaging strategies by forcing spokespeople to be flexible in their thinking.

Crisis situations are stressful and require a strategic response. However, don’t let the whirlwind of managing a crisis distract you from being innovative. Get the facts, remember “The 4 Hard C’s of Crisis Communication” and never stop thinking creatively.

John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
John Deveney, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the founder of Deveney Communication (, and has more than 20 years of PR experience, including crisis and issues management for leaders across all industries.


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