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The general objective of this study was to explore the role communication plays in effective crisis management within institutions of higher learning. Many public and private institutions and or organizations are usually unprepared in handling the public relations and crisis management aspects of crises. The specific objectives of the study were to determine the role communication plays during the various stages of crisis management; to determine the factors that affect the implementation of effective communication in crisis management and to investigate what challenges affect the implementation of a crisis management plan. The study was guided by the theory of Attribution that draws from people‟s personal experiences to crisis and the Situational Crisis Communication Theory that states that stake-holders perceptions are drawn from how a crisis is handled and its reputation during a particular crisis episode. The study location was the University of Nairobi. The study population was 150 people, drawn from Central Administration, and the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as, that of Architecture and Engineering thus comprising 110 members of staff and 40 students. A survey was carried out whereby the respondents were administered with questionnaires and ten key respondents interviewed for in-depth data. Data analysis and interpretation was done using descriptive and inferential methods for the quantitative analysis and thematic analysis quantitative methods. The findings established that the roles played by communication in crisis management are awareness creation, mobilization and evacuation during crises. It also emerged that the way in which communication is relayed is vital; the way in which the message is designed and the timing in crisis aversion. The study found that there were several challenges faced by both internal and external stakeholders and some of the challenges cited had to do with how crises were communicated to the target audience as well as handled at the various stages of planning, execution and post crisis. The study concludes that it is vital for an institution to be able to anticipate crisis and seek ways of crisis aversion in a timely manner. This can effectively be done by having an established crisis management plan in place as well as a crisis management team. The study thus recommends that the institution needs to formulate guidelines that can be used to assist in crisis mitigation as well establish a good working relationship by working closely with the media in order to avoid media speculation and untruths. 1
In “The Handbook of Crisis Communication”, Coombs (2010) defines crisis as “the outlook of an episode that threatens vital experiences of publics‟ and is capable of affecting an institution‟s performance. Therefore, a crisis is that which happens when an institution‟s reputation is threatened. A reputation is an assessment of an institute created by its publics, who on the other hand are the affected populace or those that can have an effect on an organization (Mitchell et al, 2007). Repute is consequently a valuable asset that is worth protecting. A flawed repute may contribute towards the disappearance of valued customers and this can directly affect the livelihood of the company which would have dire consequences that are a manifestation by the bottom line (Coombs, 2007).
In the recent past, crisis communication management plans as well as strategies have been adopted by both private and public sector organizations, as well as by institutions of higher learning in Kenya. For the last two decades, crisis communication has grown as a field of study (Ulmer, Seeger & Sellnow, 2007), and has been addressed from different scientific domains, making it difficult to oversee the bulk of research that has been conducted. Moreover, research on the effectiveness of communication strategies to restore reputations during crises, is still in its infancy (Hobbs, 1995). This study seeks to evaluate public perception on best practices for crisis preparedness. It will further interrogate in-depth what the laid down strategies put in place are; and how they are employed during crisis management episodes with an aim to mitigate crisis episodes. It will at the same time determine how the institution through its communication 9
policy has sought to present its stakeholders with well-timed, precise, objectives and absolute information during times of crises (UoNCP, 2014).
Coombs, (1999) posits that there is no organization that can boost immunity to a crisis and that crisis can spring from within its confines or outside the organization. Reynolds, (2006) posits that once this happens, people‟s lives may be endangered and the standing of a company or institution be exposed. According to Heath (2006) he posits that in order to explain crisis, you must first describe danger. Heath, goes on to state that danger is an occurrence that can have both positive as well as harmful consequences of varying magnitudes, the prevalence and impact of which can be on various occasions anticipated and contained.
Of essence to managing a crisis is tact as well as efficiency in communication. In the absence of these the wellbeing and protection of its publics and the image of an organization are at risk. "The mode of information dissemination in an organization affects public perception both in crisis response as well as mainstream coordination and mitigation" (Stephens & Malone, 2009).
For example, when a crisis situation intensifies and becomes complex thus transforming into a multiple communication type, what kind of public relations approach is employed within an organization and or institution? Lesenciuc, et.al. (2008), documents that this approach has to take into account the area of meaning for the public relations procedures and the vital set of laws used in the event of a crisis. Its approach generally does not limit, neither does it resolve, at organizational level, a certain type of conduct in its workforce, but it in turn provides rules of application so that each member of staff knows his or her function within the organization and, as a result knows which is his/her role, and, thus the final course of action in preparation of crisis 10
communication will not deteriorate into a confused, uncoordinated action. Lastly, this strategy encompasses each role, such that, each section of the whole organization will be covered.
According to Stavre (2001), a public relations approach, need not imply a firm and complicated strategy, quite the opposite, it is likened to a channel, inside a lively framework of maturity and in the absence of apprehension and its inevitability is aimed at offering precision and effectiveness. The best approach to public relations will always be the first one put into action, whereas, in order to realize this course of action, there is need for preparation in a virtual work-frame, as close as possible to a calculated reality. This arrangement of the public relations policy comprises mainly the intricate part of the whole process of the planned approach of the public relations area.
A well designed strategy therefore, entails the application of hard work, steadily and its main intent must be the realization of the desired results (Stavre, 2001). This calculated approach can be integrated into documents showing the course of action in gradual steps, as well as, in tactical stages, according to the interactive crisis management, and such action requires careful planning or results drawn from a explicit resolution made by the managers.
Gone are the days when companies were only accountable to their own shareholders. Apart from Publics becoming expansive; they too are curious and require to be well informed. A crisis management plan is therefore a vital asset in this fast-changing world. There is no entity that is immune to crisis, but the approach used to tackle the crisis should be tactful. Effective, fast communication will most definitely strengthen a company‟s image. The public view an 11
organization or institution by the way in which a crisis is handled. When the wellbeing of stakeholders is placed before those of an institution, the institution or organization is often given a second lease of life. Efficient and effective action is key in dealing with crisis (Anthonissen, 2008).
Crisis management according to Coombs (2007) is a vital executive role. The end result of failure can have grave harm to stakeholders, culminating in an organization or institution incurring extensive losses that can lead to its extinction. PR practitioners form an essential part of crisis mitigation in any management team. Crisis Communication therefore refers to a particular section that deals with the repute of an organization‟s stakeholders. Crisis communication is a plan which aims at shielding the ranking of an organization and upholding its public image. Various factors such as criminal or terrorist attacks, investigations by government, media enquiry can taint the image of an organization.
Coombs (2007) further defines crisis as a series of unwanted events at the place of work which lead to strife and major disorder amongst individuals. Crisis usually arises unexpectedly and triggers a feeling of danger and panic in the employees. Simply, crisis leads to doubt and causes major harm to the organization and its employees. It is therefore, essential for employers to anticipate crisis and forewarn their employees against the likely negative consequences that may emerge. Crisis not only affects the smooth operation of any organization it also poses danger to its brand name. 12
1.1 The relationship between Crisis Communication and Strategic Communication
The current uncertain environment brings with it opportunities for crises, which are magnified by the proliferation of both traditional and new media. As a result, organizations have prioritized crisis communication (Coombs, 2007). Crisis communication is vital to successful crisis management and is therefore more about managing the product, the cause, and the public‟s opinion of a crisis (Gray, 2003). In actual fact, crisis communication is associated with utilizing information to identify risk and in spurring mitigating behaviors that can reduce the risk, coordinate support and recovery in cases where a crisis occurs (Ulmer, et al, 2007).
In institutions and or organizations, the glue that binds all the actions and operations, internally and externally is no doubt communication. Therefore, communication is critical to the effective performance of any enterprise (UoNCP, 2014). During an emergency, the need to communicate is instant. If the day to day operations are interfered with, the stakeholders will want to know their fate in view of the crisis. Regulators as well as local government officials will need to be informed of what is happening in their environs. Employees and their families will be anxious and will demand to be informed of what is happening. People residing near the institution may need information especially if their livelihoods are threatened by the incident. Ready communication and or answers will be demanded by all these “audiences” as the crisis management team ready themselves to communicate the crisis episode during the various stages. (www.ready.gov/business/implementation/crisis). 13
1.2 Statement of the Problem
According to Bernstein (2013), no organization is immune to crises. Therefore, the importance of efficient crisis communication cannot therefore be downplayed as it assists organizations in tackling the crisis that has the probability of bringing, a lot of harm to the organization‟s image and reputation hence overall business performance (Fearn-Banks, 2007).
Bernstein (2013) further posits if any institution does not prepare, it will incur more damage. While conducting a susceptibility audit from previous crisis related plans it emerged that the first step in crisis preparedness, at a glance is the failure to address the numerous issues that are communication related to crisis response. On many occasions institutional management teams do not understand the importance of internal and external communication with its stakeholders, whilst using the best-possible communication platforms to reach all targeted audiences, operational response will break down; stakeholders will be in the dark as to what is happening and as a result can quickly become perplexed, annoyed, and negatively reactive; the organization will at this point be viewed as incompetent, at best, and lax, at worst; protracting the time required to contain the crisis.
The fundamental steps of successful crisis communication are not hard, but require prior planning in order to lessen the damage. According to Bernstein (2013) therefore, the slower the response, the more damage is incurred, hence the need for crisis preparedness, response and effective communication. 14
Lando (2014) in one of her journal articles, states that a crisis is inevitable, to any organization or individual, anywhere and at any time. This is asserted by Argenti (2012), who posits that crises are unpredictable, and as such it is therefore not a matter of if, but when, it will occur. Institutions that have a pre-existing Crisis Communication Plan (CCP) are therefore in a better position to aptly deal with a crisis situation and bounce back to normalcy in the shortest time possible. Crisis management thus offers an organized approach for handling a crisis episode in order to have the least possible impact. Fearn-Banks (2007) on the other hand states that crisis management provides the organization a better chance to gain control of its situation since it provides a guide to managing crises.
Kinyanjui & Juma (2014), assert that planned approaches enhance service delivery and the ability of agencies to attain their goal. Strategic plans therefore must bear in mind these difficult tasks and respond to them appropriately. Therefore, the University is compelled to design a new strategic path driven by a joint vision, while taking into account the importance of its global positioning. This is the key component that propels the University‟s strategic plan. Thus the institution aims to put together its strengths around accredited opportunities, with a view to addressing its weak links thus reducing the threat to its growth, transitioning and role to the country‟s nationwide agenda and the society at large (UoNSP, 2014).
The UoNCP (2014) asserts that handling of corporate communication the world over has transitioned, in order for an organization to stay alive; it must undertake to effectively communicate with its stakeholders. Hence when we find ourselves in a crisis situation we are charged with one goal that of shielding the image of the organization by communicating the right 15
message, in a timely manner to the targeted audience. In order to control crisis communication in the institution and turn it around to its advantage, the institution must therefore employ speed, tact and precision.
The world over organizations are finally “getting it” about crisis preparedness, be it crisis communication, or awareness as well as response. Certainly, though stakeholder demand for pre-preparation and anticipation has increased over the past few years there is generally little change in what has been said previously and as a result many institutions and organization still remain unprepared or are significantly under-prepared for crises (Bernstein, 2013).
The University‟s Strategic Plan presumes that change is a necessary and as such a legitimate worry to all stakeholders, and that the affected parties need to look at appropriate channels that can be explored, as well as the institution providing an enabling environment for staff to work as a team for the common good of the institution (UoNSP, 2014). This is what needs to be taken into consideration while preparing the institution‟s crisis management plan. Question is, is this the case on the ground? This study will thus seek to investigate the effective role of communication during crises in the institution, since communication plays an integral part in crisis planning, response and resolution.
1.3 Research Objectives
The objective of this study was to investigate the role of communication in crisis management in institutions of higher learning in Kenya. 16
i. To determine the role communication plays during the various stages of crisis management at the University of Nairobi.
ii. To determine the factors that affect the implementation of effective communication in crisis management at the University of Nairobi.
iii. To find out what challenges affect the implementation of a crisis management plan in the institution.
i. What impact does communication have during the various stages of a crisis management process at the University of Nairobi?
ii. What are the factors that affect the effective implementation of communication in crisis management at the University of Nairobi?
iii. What are the challenges that affect the effective implementation of a crisis management plan in the institution?
1.4 Justification of Study
According to Parsons (1996), „Murphy‟s Law‟ states that if something was meant to go wrong, it definitely will, or whatever is set to go wrong, will most definitely go wrong, when you least expect it in and in the worst of ways.
Although the study of socialization on codes of ethics shows how communication is used, and how information is disseminated and accessed, how decision-making takes place Brown (1990), 17
posits that investigations of more informal communication processes have not yet explicitly focused on the role communication plays in crisis management. Therefore, pertinent questions have been asked concerning how practical issues of crisis resolution within institutions of higher learning have been handled and the role communication plays in these processes. What communication channels have been explored and the tools used for the same. Coombs (1999), further states that we need to interrogate the ways in which guidelines on ethics training are used and their influence the character and choice of communication.
This study therefore, seeks to determine how the role of strategic communication can greatly impact on the image and reputation of any institution during crises. It further investigates the impact the existing UoNCP has had on students and staff alike with a view to finding out if the stakeholders are aware as to whether or not there exists a crisis communication plan in the institution and if so what the impact has been to-date; if not what it entails to come up with a crisis communication plan as the absence of both a CMP and CCP can impact negatively on any one institution. At the same time, the study will examine what challenges exist that mar crisis communication from being effective in institutions as well as strive to identify the various types of crisis the institution has experienced, how the University has handled them, and also establish the role crisis communication played during those moments. Further, the study will explore how the media was handled and further interrogate the opinions and perceptions of the employees, students, media and stakeholders.
The findings of this study will be useful to both its internal and external stakeholders in understanding the role communication plays in crisis, how, who and when to mitigate a crisis 18
situation. By informing its publics they will be sensitized on the need to understand what would be expected of each one of them during a crisis. Other institutions can also benefit from this study by ensuring that they too have a policy or put in place a policy which they can use to counter a crisis episode if and when it occurs and the best practices to employ in the circumstance.
1.5 Scope of Study and Limitations
Currently, the UoN‟s student population stands at 84,000 with both undergraduate and postgraduate students in close to 584 programmes in all its Faculties, Schools, Institutes and Centres. These students are spread across six campuses, with various units, located in different parts of Nairobi County. The University is also home to many satellite campuses in major towns in Kenya (University of Nairobi Factfile, 2015).
Therefore, given its size, the students and staff numbers, time and money constraints, it will not be possible to reach all the publics‟ thus it will be necessary to sample and reduce the number to a limited size. This study will target main Campus‟ Central Administration which is home to twenty one (21) departments as well as the Colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences and Architecture and Engineering respectively.
Another challenge that may be encountered is that of information sharing by management on information that may be considered sensitive to release to the public domain about the institution and lack of adequate knowledge of the University Communication policy by staff and students. 19
To mitigate this challenge, the researcher will interview students and staff randomly within a limited sample size of 150. The researcher will also use other studies that have been conducted in other institutions within the country. Due to the nature of the study the researcher will need to assure the respondents of confidentiality of the information provided. In addition, the respondents will not be expected to write their names on the questionnaires. 20
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