17. June 2020

Goal: To gain sovereignty of interpretation

Expert contribution

Crisis communication

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“They stoke and judge, sharpen and correct them, they trigger crises and help to fight them.” Hartwin Möhrle attests to these properties to the (mass) media. Their Janus face is revealed – “fire accelerator” and “fire extinguisher”. Which side reveals itself more strongly or at what time can be influenced by the respective communication of companies or authorities.

This paper presents an overview of the interdependencies between crises and public media. What is the role of journalism during the crisis or in terms of the emergence of a crisis? How can companies include the media in their external crisis communication strategy? What are the opportunities and risks of the Internet and social media? And what about darksites? With the insimation of a crisis, the sovereignty of interpretation over a situation becomes very important. And here there is a close connection with the public media, because: if you do not take the communication by oneself, then others do so for one…

Introductory remark

Im Fachbeitrag vom 3. Mai 2020 («Krisen nicht ausschweigen») steht abschliessend, dass in Krisenzeiten die interne Kommunikation das A&O ist. External communication in the form of public relations can offer opportunities and becomes indispensable as soon as external parties – for example citizens, customers and suppliers – are directly affected by a crisis or even if the trigger and the circumstances of a crisis are put into the interest of the indirectly or not at all affected public. The latter can be done because of a high news value and in the context of scandal. This prioritization of internal communication over external communication remains valid, even if the focus for this technical paper is on the public media and, with it, on external communication.

Media as “fire-founders”

Informing and entertaining the media – desirablely objective, independent and truthful. Public-law media are subject to a legal mandate in this respect, which is why they are usually classified as more trustworthy and are therefore particularly strongly received in times of crisis and the associated uncertainty. Nevertheless, the news value of stories also plays a central role for them – not only for private media. They are constantly on the lookout for attention-grabbing stories relevant to the public. There must be no place for “fake news” – certainly not with public media – but the sensational content remains tempting and in some cases produces attractive, if sometimes dangerous, flowers.

“You can’t hide in the media society, at least not in the long run.”

Hartwin Möhrle

Scandal stories do not allow a media house to pass by uncommented, and these are usually inherent in self-inflicted crises (other than accident or victim crises). One consequence of this is that “you can’t hide in the media society, at least not in the long run,” says Hartwin Möhrle. To conceal or sit out an internal, self-inflicted crisis can therefore have disastrous consequences if these are discovered by the media in their own work. A scandal that follows can be resolved only thanks to extensive preparation, but as a rule, resulting reputational damage remains substantial and the consequences for individual exponents or entire companies dramatic. In such cases, the media foments crises or even trigger them to return to Möhrle’s introductory quote. These circumstances have been drastically exacerbated by social media, because thanks to them, everyone is also an “editor” and a “reader reporter”. Schwups, the photo is taken, posted on the net and provided with questions such as “is this SUVA compliant?”. Depending on the nature and speed of the response to this, the crisis of communication can emerge from the actual crisis. But it’s also different.

Media as “fire extinguishers”

Public media and social media users not only have to denounce and scandalize, but can also play a mediating role in crisis management and resolution. This is particularly possible in the event of accident or victim crises with little or no self-indebtedness – as, for example, in the case of the Corona crisis, when the media and citizens initially disseminated the information received by the Federal Council in a multiplier role largely unchanged, but rational-critical voices then became increasingly clear from the sometimes inconclusive communication on the easing measures.

In this case, the focus of crisis communication should be on ensuring the same level of information for all those responsible and in informing the media and the population comprehensively, up-to-date, consistent and truthfully. In other words, the public is actively or even proactively informed. These should not have to gather the information based on dubious sources. With well-prepared, transparent crisis communication, speculation and rumours can be prevented or prevented, which in turn makes it possible to seek the sovereignty of opinion and to show a responsible presence. All messages and information published must be kept in an appropriate and clear language style. The suspicion that information and responsibilities are misrepresented or misunderstood must never be prompted, because this threatens to undo the sovereignty of interpretation.

In order to better serve the information needs of the media and the public, it is advisable to conduct an offensive communication: identify direct and indirect causes and effects of the crisis, take responsibility and present actions for crisis management. Defensive communication should only be pursued in crises where there is a low public interest. The advantage of restrained communication may be that a crisis as such does not reach the general public. But in the context of crisis communication, it is always important to keep in mind: “Those who remain silent are wrong” and “guilty until proven otherwise,” says Bernhard Messer. If a defensive strategy cannot satisfy the public’s need for information, there is a risk that media professionals and those interested in it will seek alternative channels for obtaining information and that their sovereignty of opinion will be lost.

Press work – long-term planning

Constructive press work requires a long-term network. After all, the journalists are burdened by a substantial competitive pressure, which may result in hasty, still incomplete media reports. Here, it can be decisive if media professionals have a direct connection to a well-known, achievable media spokesman. A guide from the German Federal Ministry of the Interior describes the situation as follows:

“Catastrophes and crises are a source of news, as they meet a criterion of relevance for journalism: they break the rule and represent a disruption of the everyday. On the part of the population, they create a high need for information, to which an appropriate response must be made. Public interest, competition from the media and the growing importance of the Internet are increasing the trend towards ever more spectacular news. Many media are finding it increasingly difficult to escape this dynamic and the pressure to publish.”

Therefore, an established and lived network with media professionals – direct contact with the media – as well as the timely provision of as comprehensive information as possible (e.g. on the basis of media releases and dark sites (see details in the next section of the text) is important for successful press work at times of crisis. In addition, only established communication channels are suitable for communication during times of crisis. For example, it is not very effective to set up and use a Twitter account during the acute crisis phase, as the establishment of a reputable follower network cannot take place overnight. In addition, media monitoring should provide in-depth knowledge of media data– including reach – and the respective target groups. In order to be able to offer the respective information as suitable for the target group as possible and to know which medium to reach which target group best. Furthermore, media monitoring can at most be used to identify “critical” media that are likely to receive a higher degree of attention if possible or necessary.

Press work in crisis situations should be able to be carried out by external third parties and it must be treated as a high priority. Often only in such a constellation can the required human and temporal resources be activated. In addition, the involvement of external communication specialists brings with it differentiated perspectives on a looming/existing crisis. Short response times and full transparency along the entire communication chain are mandatory.

Public relations

With regard to crisis communication with the population, there is an important special feature: risk-taking. If the population has already been informed about risks and rules of conduct in the run-up to an acute crisis (via risk communication), an intervention in crisis communication can be carried out accordingly more quickly, as a risk-control system could be created. There is a topic affinity and a critical moment of surprise can be reduced. For example, a crisis caused by a rock fall can be less dramatic for mountain village residents if they could be served comprehensively, professionally and regularly with information in the run-up to the disaster.

In addition to publications in electronic and print media, publications and darksites are also suitable for public relations work, at most with an online forum. Depending on the type of crisis and availability, the use of sirens, loudspeaker announcements and citizen telephone actions may also be useful or necessary (e.g. in the event of a chemical accident). Here, too, the following always applies: the content must be prepared according to the target group and ideally the most effective communication channels – currently mostly in the context of social media – have been established and maintained in the long term (more on “Social Media and Crisis Communication” in a separate paper).


Active crisis intervention is possible on the Internet with its own discussion forums and campaign pages – for example via darksites. Malte Hasse wrote: “The Internet is becoming more and more a hotspot for crisis communication. Comprehensive, transparent and rapid action must be taken here. Darksites help to provide crisis-relevant information and alleviate external research pressure. Together with search engine optimization and online issue profiling, they form the triad of crisis communication online. At the same time, these three instruments fulfil three tasks of comprehensive crisis communication and prevention: early detection, follow-up and workflow training.”

One advantage of the darksite is that building a darksite – ideally at “peacetime” – also has a training effect for crisis mode (workflow training).

What does that mean? A darksite can consist of one or more subpages that have basic and background information and can be embedded in a corporate Site environment. These subpages are created in the backend (but are not yet available online) or even made available online, whereby the subpages are not indexed by Google and the URL should be maximally cryptic. So they can not be found yet. The pre-created darksite can then be made available with just a few mouse clicks if required. Of course, it is not possible to create a darksite in the event of surprising crises. The crisis must be looming or anticipated as such. Two examples of a darksite recommendation could be:

  • a chemical company creates a darksite for a chemical accident scenario;
  • a tech company creates a darksite in the form of a troubleshooter or Q&A page prior to the launch of a new product.

The advantage of the darksite lies not only in the fact that the required information can be processed comprehensively and from our own hands and thus validated and made available quickly, but that in the course of the construction of the darksite many crisis-affected scenarios and the clear responsibilities can be clarified in advance and measures can be prepared for this in detail and at “peacetimes”. The construction of a darksite therefore has a training effect for crisis mode (workflow training).

In order to be able to develop a darksite at “beautiful weather times”, an (online) issue profiling is indispensable. The aim of this early warning system is to identify possible crises that are arolling crisis, as these can begin to emerge at an early stage, especially in the digital space. In order for a darksite to be found by search engines, search engine optimization and AdWord campaigning are necessary. Because until a search engine has captured a darksite by itself, the acute phase of a crisis is (hopefully) already over. “Therefore, it is essential to use service providers who, through their business relationships with search engines and catalogues, are able to meet these requirements in real time by means of express entries in the catalogues and AdWord campaigning,” writes Hasse.

Targeted crisis follow-up

In the media, a crisis can temporarily disappear from the radar – for example, if an overlapping topic is available for publication – or it can have a journalistic effect long after the acute crisis phase. For example, new information on a (supposedly) end-of-life crisis – such as reports on damage assessments or court rulings – can give a new boost to the issue in the press. Or a crisis issue can remain subliminally present in public. Therefore, companies and authorities are well advised to always plan for targeted crisis follow-up in their crisis management and communication, and also to keep the media and the public informed about this at all times – even when the public interest is beginning to dwindle.

Teile dieser Ausführungen stützen sich auf die Publikation «Leitfaden Krisenkommunikation», herausgegeben vom Deutschen Bundesministerium des Innern. Die Zitate von Malte Hasse, Hartwin Möhrle und Bernhard Messer entstammen der Publikation «Krisen-PR. Recognizing, mastering and preventing crises» (p. 7, 22-26, 54, 174), published in 2004 by Hartwin Möhrle.

Published by:

Basil Böhni

In the summer of 2018, Basil Böhni (* 1985) founded Böhni Communications Ltd liab. co. He graduated with a Major in Media Science from the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zurich. During his career, Basil Böhni has worked for a range of organizations gaining extensive experience in communications, digital marketing, cultural administration, event management, and journalism.