Changing climate for crisis communications

Proactive solutions for addressing a new reality

As head of public relations and communications at the Bulgarian branch of utilities conglomerate CEZ, Maria Doychinova has witnessed the increased scope for environmental factors on potential crisis situations.

Recently, Maria spoke at Quadriga Crisis Communications Conference about readjusting communication strategy to address these new challenges, before reinforcing to Communication Director the need for greater flexibility, teamwork and community engagement from communication teams.

Main image: Maria Doychinova speaking at the Quadriga Crisis Conference 2016

What is the first question you ask once you hear a crisis situation has unfolded?

When the crisis hits us, apart from the corporate procedures there is always one question we should ask, because when we talk about crisis situations in our business we must always think about people: what exactly happened and how has it affected human lives? It’s more than straightforward procedure and we should ask ourselves how to do more to mitigate the situation and the possible consequences from a human perspective. Together with the purely professional approach, empathy is key. And then, when it’s over, I never forget to ask myself and my team – what are the lessons we have learned as communicators and what can we do better if it happens again?

How is climate change forcing organisations to change their communication policies?

Climate change has been one of the most discussed topics in recent years. Serious natural disasters such as floods, snowstorms, tsunamis, are hitting almost every corner of the Earth. Each time their impact becomes more powerful and devastating to us when combined with our dynamic lifestyle. People, companies, and organisations have to be conscious of climate change and the challenges it poses to operation and communication. There is no place for the excuse of helplessness when facing acts of God any more.

Communication policies should be upgraded to prescribe a consistent flow of information to give guidance to communities, local governments and institutions, to frame better interaction and response. Climate change is a fact of today and corporations are already recognising this in their operations as well as in their awareness, engagement and sustainability communication plans. Education programmes and continuous dialogue with and between all stakeholders will place the issue on the table for cross-business nationwide (or even larger) discussion via all contemporary communication channels. Thus it will contribute to preparing the communities for the new realities.

“What are the lessons we have learned as communicators and what can we do better if it happens again?”

In this context what is particularly important when communicating on behalf of a utilities company?

Utility companies are very often blamed for breakdowns and problems, caused by natural disasters that very often nobody could foresee. It’s a catch 22 type of situation. When disaster strikes, utility companies have to work 24/7 to restore essential water, power or heating to people. At these tough times we receive mostly negativity and criticism from clients, society and institutions. That is why utility companies' PR and communication professionals have to go the extra mile to prepare the public and provide communication solutions to these type of crises. “Peace time” communication needs to put a special emphasis on energy efficiency programmes together with other aspects of consensus building, awareness and preparedness information initiatives. It is no longer sufficient to communicate to institutions. Nowadays we need to communicate with stakeholders, in a dialogical regime.

In times of peace we have to mobilise resources, not only to create algorithms for communication activities during crises, but also to enhance the understanding of the community of what the utility company is doing when a snowstorm hits. And there is one thing we should always bear in mind – communication today happens in real time – via internet and social networks, on our mobile phones. So we need to have the answers and spread the information in real time. Otherwise the reputation of the company is put at serious risk. In the face of natural disasters, the most efficient way to minimise the damage is for society to be adequately prepared in advance. Several of the natural misfortunes we encounter, are hard or sometimes impossible to foresee. Nevertheless, an adequate approach in how we should react when such events take place may be the key to reducing loss of life, injuries and material damage.

Awareness campaigns of natural hazards depending on geographical locations, climate etc. should be carried out accordingly and in advance. Specific measures must be taken before an event, preparing us for what to do during a hurricane, earthquake, flood, fire, or other possible events, and what actions to take in the aftermath. When disaster strikes, the most important action is the early reaction system. National and local governments, NGOs and business should strictly follow preset instructions and procedures and evacuate people in need. And we have to tell the story of the enormous efforts made by our teams in the field. In my experience I have seen that flexibility, teamwork and volunteers from our teams have a vital role in overcoming the consequences of a disaster. We encourage and support such efforts by all means. People and empathy are also a key factor to mitigate the situation.

In your own time in communications, which crisis events have you learned the most from?

Recent years were challenging from a communication perspective as we started seeing natural disasters occur much more regularly than before. In the spring of 2014 a combination of heavy rains, followed by low temperatures caused severe freezing of our power lines. The cables accumulated 37kg of ice per one linear metre. Poles were breaking down like tooth sticks. Energy experts had seen nothing like this before. Power breakdowns in some regions lasted for days. Over two million clients were affected. We had to mobilise instantly – both operationally and communication wise.

Evaluating the situation we found out that with some small changes in regulation we could limit the scope of such breakdowns significantly. Some incidents were caused by fallen trees, which had grown beyond the safety strips. When these trees were struck by rain or snow or wind, they fell and cut off cables. We started talking about that immediately. CEZ companies in Bulgaria became the key public ambassadors for increasing the safety strips around power lines to prevent breakdowns. Every time we reported about the current situation we cautioned that such natural disasters should be addressed in advance and urged for preventive measures. These efforts resulted in a new regulation, adopted in September 2015 by the Ministry of Energy, allowing broader areas along electricity lines to be left without trees. It was a breakthrough for the entire energy sector. 

“People and empathy are also a key factor to mitigate the situation.”

 Do you see reputation as a worthy investment?

Reputation is what every company, organisation and institution, should invest heavily in, defending its social licence for its operations. Whatever we do, as a business, and as community members, we always have to assess how our action, or the lack of it, will affect the company's reputation. It takes a long time to build and only seconds to lose – then, if at all, it may take ages to restore. We cannot afford this, no one can.

A version of this article originally appeared on the website of the European Association of Communication Directors. For more insights from the Quadriga Crisis Communications Conference, read an interview with Ana Martines, corporate communication director at L' Oréal Portugal.

Image: Julia Nimke

Maria Doychinova

Maria Doychinova is responsible for the development and implementation of communication strategies at CEZ’s companies in Bulgaria. By 2010, she was communications director of Sofia Water Company. Maria is a member of the International Public Relations Association and the European Association of Communication Directors.