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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

How to communicate during crisis


Members of the UN Command Military Armistice Commission communicate with North Korean counterparts via hotline (photo via Twitter @UN_Command)

 

When a precipitating event occurs and a security crisis begins, communication becomes a critical tool for managing outcomes. But how do parties to crisis communicate? Although it seems like the answer should be obvious, that isn’t always the case when it comes to two or more sides stuck in an escalation cycle.


Since understanding how to communicate is fundamental to being able to manage a crisis, this article offers an explanation of what might be communicated between parties to crisis, and how they execute that communication.  


What communication occurs between parties to crisis

Essentially, there are four reasons why parties to crisis communicate with each other. The first is to convey interests. In other words, the parties are seeking to explain what it is they hope to achieve vis-a-vis the situation. Sometimes the goal is de-escalation and return to the pre-crisis status quo, but there could be specific objectives that a party is trying to achieve. This conveying of interests can be done through indirect signaling or direct communication and negotiation. 


The second reason parties to crisis communicate is to present positions, red lines, and/or preconditions. Unlike interests which are the broader objectives a party hopes to achieve, positions are specific demands communicated to the other side. These positions may come in the form of red lines–that is, thresholds which, if crossed, would invite escalation and/or punishment; and preconditions, which are concessions that must be delivered prior to entering negotiations.


Third, parties to crisis communicate to exchange information. Confusion, misinformation, disinformation, and mixed messaging are all obstacles to de-escalation, and so presentation of facts and explanations of circumstances (both practical and political) can help parties navigate the crisis.


Finally, the parties may communicate as a means of negotiating resolution to the crisis. Negotiation is the most complex and comprehensive form of communication between parties to crisis, as it involves the opposing sides seeking a way to achieve cooperation despite competing interests under tense and potentially escalating circumstances.


How to communicate in a crisis

Once crisis begins and parties determine what they hope to achieve through communication with the other side, they must figure out hope to engage the other side. Although there are myriad communication mechanisms, they can all be broken down into five categories.


Media

Parties to crisis can employ the media to deliver unilateral messages during a crisis. This can be done through a published document such as a press release or a statement (whether unilateral or joint). They may opt to address the crisis in press conferences, either scheduled or ad hoc. If they wish to have a more in-depth discussion about the issues and interests at play, they may opt to conduct interviews with media outlets. Finally, they may elect to disintermediate–that is, cut out the middle man–and publish information or statements via social media platforms that are then amplified via traditional media outlets.


Hotlines

Parties that are at risk of conflict may establish lines-of-communication that can be employed in crisis scenarios. Commonly referred to as "hotlines," these often come in the form of a point-to-point phone lines that links critical offices on opposing sides. These phones may be routinely used during day-to-day operations (such as in daily line checks and message passing), or they may be for exceptional circumstances only, such as following a precipitating event to crisis.


Diplomatic Channels

Governments seeking to engage each other during a crisis typically have diplomatic means of communication. This often comes in the form of embassies located in their respective capitals; however, even if they do not have direct diplomatic relations, they still have the United Nations. Since all member states are afforded offices at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, there is an opportunity for diplomatic personnel to engage there.


Government Intermediaries

Governments may opt to avoid direct communication with another party to crisis, especially if they feel aggrieved by actions the other side has taken. In those cases, they may seek out other governments that can act as intermediaries. Those intermediaries may conduct shuttle diplomacy, carrying messages to and from the respective parties to crisis. They can also host meetings between the parties, providing venues for dialogue and other accommodations, as necessary. In some cases, another government may actively mediate those meetings, if the parties to crisis endorse that level of involvement in facilitating their dialogue.


Backchannels

The last means of communication during crisis is via backchannels, or informal intermediaries. These backchannels can be incredibly useful when the parties to crisis need a disavowable means of communication. Both the private sector and academia offer traditional backchannels, leveraging existing relationships in the business and scholarly worlds to enable governments to execute their communication objectives.

 

So, if you are a practitioner engaged in crisis management, what do these objectives and means of communication mean to you? Here are a few key recommendations useful in addressing any crisis.

  • Given the urgency and oftentimes condensed timelines, there are usually limited opportunities to communicate, so it is critical to understand the objectives and means of communication to ensure that your decisions maximize those opportunities.

  • Keep as many options for communication open as possible. This grants additional flexibility during times when it is easy to become fixed into an escalation cycle.

  • Have a clear idea of which communication objective you are hoping to achieve, because it is central to all your follow-on decisions of how, when, and what to communicate to the other side.

  • Pick the methods of communication that most closely align with the desired objective. It is important not to misuse or abuse methods of communication, which can undermine the intended points that a party is trying to convey to the other side or scuttle opportunities for meaningful engagement.

  • If employing more than one method of communication, ensure consistency to avoid mixed messaging. Failure to ensure communication discipline fuels confusion and mistrust, while unified messaging supports the principles of consistency and clarity.

  • Third parties can be useful in facilitating communication during a crisis, but when engaging third parties, be clear on expectations for the level of third party involvement. Both overbearing and under-involved intermediaries can be equally unhelpful.


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