Adaptability in Crisis Communication

The subject of adaptability in communication leads me to think about my experiences playing college basketball. Our plays always had several options, in case one didn’t work. And although we always had a plan and a backup plan, the game most often did not go as planned. In every moment there were adjustments that needed to be made. Everyone player in the game had an important role and experienced players were best at making advantageous decisions in the heat of the moment. Basketball, often used as a metaphor for life, is comparable to crisis communication- it is critical to have a plan in place and the ability to quickly adapt within that plan. The following will discuss how an organization can prepare to be adaptable and possible consequences for a brand if an organization is not.

How an organization can prepare to be adaptable

Coombs & Holladay (2012) inform the following ways organizations can prepare to be adaptable:

  1. Decentralization
  2. Building trust capitol
  3. Diversity in management
  4. Experience and training
  5. Plan to adapt

Decentralization. Centralization occurs when decisions are made by a few in high-level positions and all other decisions made by those is lower positions must be approved by upper management (MSG, n.d). Decentralization, on the other hand is delegation of authority on all levels of management and in all the organization, while top management takes responsibility for major decisions and policy making (MSG, n.d). When an organization distributes responsibilities and functions to team members that are away from a central authority, it increases the possibility for improvisation (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

Build trust. Coombs & Holladay (2012) explain that peoples’ trust in institution, companies and authorities have become weaker, thus trust capitol needs to be built for leaders to be listened to in time of crisis. Organizations can build trust among stakeholders by employing every day trust building activities, such as being transparent, quickly responding to issues (Coombs & Holladay, 2012) engaging customer reviews and providing optimal user experiences (Huge Inc., n.d).

Diversity in management. It is important for organizations to view the world around them from a nuanced perspective- as complex problems require complex solutions (Coombs & Holladay, 2012) For example, if an organizations’ management mainly consist of all Caucasian males from the same background then it would be pretty difficult for an organization to have diversity in perspectives. Lack of diversity prevents the possibility of alternative interpretives -whereas a heterogeneous team can take advantage of diversity in understanding and perceiving information which contribute to adaptability (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

Experience and training.Requirements for adaptability, flexibility and or improvisation are experience and training. With experience comes knowledge and confidence or security in that knowledge. And through training experience knowledge can be gained and maintained (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Coombs & Holladay (2012), urge that training should include learning to act flexibly in crises situations and not rely entirely on the crisis plan.

Crisis training should emphasize thinking while acting to improve the organization’s capacity to react and increase its ability to react correctly (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). So in other words, it is in the interests of organizations to plan for adaptability.

Consequences of not being adaptable

Plan to adapt. Planning is critical however it is important to realize that one cannot foresee or plan for all crises (Coombs & Holladay, 2012). Over planning can prevent an organization from becoming adaptable and have severe consequences. Spending too much time and energy on planning can cause an organization to miss signs of crises and become confined, or deadlocked, into limited behaviors where options are overlooked (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

One example is the 1949 firefighter accident in Helena National Forest where 13 firefighters died.  Despite being instructed by officers to abandon their tools and leave the area they did what they were trained to do- fight to the very last and never abandon their tools. Weick (1993 in Coombs & Holladay, 2012) considers the firefighters did not adapt because they were constricted by traditional routine, rules and ingrained patterns.

Quick, transparent and informative responses. As mentioned above, being transparent, honest and quick to respond works to build trust and is significant to being adaptable. In addition, the type of response is critical- responding to negative slants with a sense of humor and honesty can shift the online sentiment during a crisis (ITI, 2012). During a crisis people are searching for information and continuing the conversation when information is not provided. An organization can assist in bringing a crisis to an end by responding quickly and following up with lots of information and updates (ITI, 2012). The consequences of not doing so is possible damaged reputation and mistrust of stakeholders (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).


In planning for crisis, don’t over plan. It is impossible to foresee every possible crisis. It is key to have a plan and structure that is adaptable. An organization can prepare to be adaptable by having a decentralized structure allowing all levels of an organization to play a part in decision making-creating space for adaptability. Being honest, transparent, responding quickly, engaging customer reviews and providing optimum customer service are some of the ways an organization can build trust. This supports an organizations’ adaptability as when trust capitol is built stakeholders are more apt to listen to organizational leadership. Diversity in management is another way adaptability can be achieved. Diversity supports nuances of perspectives as it invites those with various background, expertise and experience to contribute to adaptability. Experience and training are key to making adaptability practical. Experienced leaders have the knowledge and confidence in their knowledge that make them better improvisers than those less experienced. Crisis training builds knowledge and experience and should include not relying entirely on an established plan. Strict, inflexible plans and training can cause organization members to be trapped by ingrained patterns. This lowers the capacity to recognize alternative decisions that can lead to positive outcomes. Other consequences of not being adaptable are damaged reputation, loss of trust by stakeholders and a crisis continuing longer than necessary. Or in other words losing the game.


Coombs.T. W., Hollady, S. J (2012) The handbook of crisis communication. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Malden, MA

HugeInc. (n.d) How Brands Build Trust in a Digital World. Retrieved from

Ignite Technologies Inc. (2012, February 21) How to Manage a PR Crisis That’sBlowing Up on the Internet [Video File] Retrieved from

Management Study Guide [MSG] (n.d) Centralization and Decentralization. Retrieved from



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