Bulletin / Does Crisis Communications...

Does Crisis Communications response change when conducted in countries which have authoritarian regimes?

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

This week Charlie talks about incident management communications within authoritarian regimes.

I will leave a bulletin on the terrible events associated with the Palau earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia until next week.

This week we were asked to bid for some incident management training in a country which has an authoritarian regime. The work would include delivering training to the crisis management team, followed by an exercise. In thinking about how I would conduct the training I got thinking about if the country does not have free press, how would this affect my teaching of crisis communications?

On teaching the basics of crisis communications there are a few fundamentals which should be included in any course: 

1.     Communication is key to crisis response and your communications can be as important as what you do.

2.     Acknowledge you have had an incident early and don’t have another media source break your incident to your stakeholders.

3.     Apologise if this is appropriate and apologise sincerely.

4.     Be open, honest and compassionate in your communications.

5.     Never lie, and if you adopt the communications strategy of silence, others will fill the void with their side of the story which may not be complimentary to your organisation.

6.     You need to listen to your stakeholders and adjust your message to their requirements and their sentiment.

To look at this subject further I did the normal google search to see what had already been written on this. Most of the literature I could find was on the effect of disasters on government. There was a good paper I read entitled “Crisis Management in an Authoritarian Regime: Media Effects during the Sichuan Earthquake” by Pierre F. Landry Associate Professor Yale University and Daniela Stockmann Assistant Professor Leiden University. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China led to over 69,000 people losing their lives, 374,176 were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008. As the earthquake occurred during the day many children lost their lives due to school collapses which were blamed on poor construction due to corruption.

The paper compared the impact on the population and their approval of the government before and after the quake as they were able to gain access to government data on the attitudes. The government response to the quake at first was successful, they acknowledged the incident as they had not in past major quakes, and encouraged reporting of the response by the media. They sent senior Communist Party officials to the site and they galvanised the country to support with blood supplies and donations to help the people affected. This strategy was initially successful. One of the aspects of Chinese media was that at this time they were no longer supported financially by the Chinese government and so they had to rely on advertising for revenue. In this case this led to sensational reporting of the events, and when criticism started when people complained about the response and more importantly why so many buildings collapsed, the Chinese government took a much bigger role in direction of the media on how to report on the incident. The paper concludes that although initially there was support for the government after the event there was less support for the Communist Party than there was before.

In reading further on the subject of authoritarian governments and disasters, they fear disasters as it can place their legitimacy in peril. If there is a major natural or man-made disaster, those affected may blame the government. They cannot change the government by the ballot box, so they may protest or turn to insurgency to try to vent their rage at the government or to bring about a change in regime. Governments therefore know if there is a disaster they will try and either play down the extent of the event in the media or try and prevent news of the event getting out. With the penetration of social media down to all parts of society it is more difficult to try and prevent the full extent of an incident being known. The Chinese government who have one of the most extensive social media monitoring apparatus sometimes struggle to prevent bad news of the regime circulating.

So how does this effect the crisis communications of non-government organisations either in the private or public sector. First of all, I believe there is no difference between the needs of organisations in authoritarian regimes or democracies to promote their brands. Brands are important to all organisations and so their crisis communications need to protect their brand to their stakeholders. This applies, I believe, to most organisations even if they are a monopoly.

Where I think there is a difference in crisis communication, is that the government and the government-controlled or directed press will become your most critical stakeholder even more than your customers. The government’s attitude to your organisation may be determined by its relationship to the organisation. It could be owned by government officials, be a government organisation or a national institution, either as a source of national pride or as a key part of the national infrastructure, and so the government may be supportive in an incident.  I think the attitude of the government will be, how will this incident effect our legitimacy and if there is the chance this incident can be blamed on the government they will take steps to either isolate themselves from the event or to shift the blame squarely on the organisation having the crisis.

In teaching crisis management, I think the first question for the team to ask themselves is how the government and the press will view this incident. This then should determine our communications response. We may follow all the basic principles, such as making sure that key parts of the government are informed of the incident first, but we are all always aware that the government is our most critical stakeholder and our communications should be geared foremost towards them. The government's narrative should be closely listened to and the organisation’s communication should be aligned to them.

In conclusion, authoritarian regimes are sensitive to crises, as a poor response or even the cause of the crisis may be blamed on them and it may lead to the undermining support for the government.  The organisation responding to the incident must treat the government as their most critical stakeholder and tailor and align their communication to their requirements.

You might be interested in the following stories

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You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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