Teaching Communication in an Age of Disruption

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Monday, May 2, 2022
By Daniel Laufer
Photo by iStock/alphaspirit
Today’s business leaders inevitably will face a range of crises. They must be prepared to communicate clearly and effectively.
  • A crisis management course in New Zealand draws on current events to showcase the importance of effective communications.
  • The course brings in corporate executives to discuss how their companies managed real crises.
  • Students are encouraged to share examples from their own organizations and apply course concepts to situations they have encountered.

Since COVID-19 made its appearance on the global stage in 2020, New Zealand has been praised for its response to the pandemic. Compared to other countries, it had very few COVID cases and experienced minimal day-to-day disruptions. However, in January 2022, the Omicron variant started to spread in New Zealand. By the end of February, the country was recording thousands of cases a day.

In response to the pandemic, Parliament enacted mask and vaccine mandates. These angered some citizens and resulted in unprecedented demonstrations as protestors began occupying areas near the Parliament buildings. The business school where I work—the Wellington School of Business and Government at the Victoria University of Wellington—is located across the street from Parliament. Because of the protests, the school was temporarily closed to both students and faculty.

Normally, the rise in COVID-19 cases and the closure of the business school would be major disruptions for any course. However, in January and February, I was teaching a class on crisis communication, so I took the opportunity to use real-world situations to illustrate key concepts from the curriculum.

Genesis of a New Course

In recent years, the world has been rocked by COVID-19, global warming, and high-profile corporate incidents such as the emissions scandal at VW and the two crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes. In response, more business schools have added offerings on crisis management. It’s a topic I have taught for more than 15 years at institutions such as the Mannheim Business School in Germany, WU Vienna in Austria, the University of British Columbia in Canada, the University at Buffalo in the U.S., and Tel Aviv University and Reichman University in Israel.

In these courses, I have taught students frameworks they can use to improve the effectiveness of their communications with stakeholders during three different stages: the pre-crisis phase, the crisis phase, and the post-crisis phase. Before a crisis actually happens, effective communications can reduce the chances that it will occur. During a crisis, clear communications can minimize harm to both stakeholders and an organization’s reputation. Once the event has happened, effective communications can help facilitate learning that will prevent a similar situation in the future.

I discussed several aspects of crisis management in 2020, when I participated in a university podcast about leadership during a crisis. Other experts on the panel included Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of New Zealand’s Ministry of Health and the architect of New Zealand’s COVID-19 strategy; Sarah Stuart-Black, then New Zealand’s director of Civil Defence Emergency Management; and Therese Walsh, the chairwoman of Air New Zealand. The discussion was moderated by Ian Williamson, pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the business school.

Effective communications can reduce the chances a crisis will occur, minimize the harm if it does occur, and facilitate learning that will prevent a similar situation in the future.

The podcast was named one of the most popular podcasts hosted by the university that year, an indication of strong interest in the topic. Subsequently, I was invited to develop an elective on crisis communication for the business school’s EMBA program. I first taught the new elective in an intensive format over a four-day period in January and February 2022.

Corporate and Student Input

In designing the new course, I felt it was important to include the perspectives of both industry and government. Because Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, our EMBA consistently attracts leaders from both the public and private sectors. In fact, the 20 students who ultimately enrolled included executives in public and private companies, managers in nonprofit organizations, and officers in the military.

Therefore, I looked for potential partners who could provide a corporate perspective. I approached two organizations that had won awards from the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) for their performance during a crisis.

Fonterra, one of the world’s largest milk exporters, agreed to talk about its response to COVID-19 and how the company enhanced its reputation during the pandemic. The New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA), a government agency that oversees the country’s bridges, agreed to discuss how it managed a crisis involving the Auckland Harbour Bridge, one of the busiest traffic corridors in the country. The incident involved a truck accident that caused structural damage to the bridge, adversely impacting traffic for an extended period of time.

Because New Zealand relies heavily on global trade, I thought it was important to incorporate a global perspective, so I also approached overseas companies for input into the course. I was fortunate to obtain the cooperation of Wharf Hotels, a chain of luxury hotels in Asia headquartered in Hong Kong. When I interviewed the president of the hotel, she discussed how the company managed two different crises: COVID-19 and demonstrations in Hong Kong. Because Wharf Hotels has operations in Wuhan, China, the president could explain how the company applied lessons learned in Wuhan to its hotel operations in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

In addition to seeking corporate involvement in the course, I wanted to encourage student engagement. The first assignment was based on a simulation involving harm caused by a product, a medical device that monitors glucose levels for diabetics. The crisis was caused by inaccurate readings of those levels. After completing the simulation, students were required to prepare a press release on behalf of the manufacturer of the medical device.

The second assignment was a group project in which students critically analyzed the performance of NZTA during the Auckland Harbour Bridge crisis, using concepts discussed in class. During the final assignment, students were required to reflect on a crisis that had taken place in their own organizations. They were asked to assess how their organizations had performed and whether there was room for improvement in the area of crisis communication.

The course integrated research on how to manage crisis contagion and when to use the CEO as a spokesperson during a crisis.

Finally, the course integrated my research on how to manage crisis contagion and when to use the CEO as a spokesperson during a crisis, particularly during a global crisis. Research can be useful in EMBA courses when it has managerial implications. Students who understand these important topics can improve a company’s communication during a crisis.

The Key to Communication

A critical part of the course was looking at how companies could develop effective communications during a pandemic. This was particularly relevant because the Omicron variant was rapidly spreading around New Zealand as the course was taking place, and the virus already had impacted people around the world.

In one class, we discussed the March 2020 speech given by Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott. This speech, which went viral on YouTube, is an excellent example of how to communicate with employees during a crisis. Of particular interest during the discussion was whether the credibility of leaders and company spokespeople is enhanced when they express emotions during such moments, as Sorenson did.

In addition, after watching Zoom interviews I had conducted with executives at Fonterra and Wharf Hotels, students considered how those companies had responded to COVID-19. Then students shared how their own organizations had communicated during the pandemic and suggested areas for improvement.

The class also spent time discussing a crisis that had a direct impact on them: the demonstrations at Parliament. Because these demonstrations temporarily closed the university, the course had to be relocated to another one of our campuses.

Despite the inconvenience, the situation gave us an opportunity to address pertinent issues such as the importance of consistency in communications. For instance, during the early part of the demonstrations, police announced that they would tow the protestors’ illegally parked cars, but they did not follow through on this threat. Students debated whether inconsistences between statements and actions could cause organizations to lose credibility in the eyes of stakeholders.

Four Insights

For other universities that want to develop crisis communication courses, I offer four pieces of advice:

First, collaborate with practitioners. Integrating information about real companies facing real problems provides opportunities to show students the relevance of the frameworks and concepts presented in class. Relevance is always very important in an EMBA program, where students want to gain knowledge that is immediately useful in their workplaces. As I mentioned, I found that one way to identify potential collaborators was to contact organizations that had won awards for successful campaigns, thus proving they understood how to communicate effectively.

Students will be more engaged when they are affected by the situations under discussion, but they can be captivated by events that do not impact them personally.

Second, incorporate current events into classroom activities. Students will be more deeply engaged when they are directly affected by the situations under discussion. However, students also can be captivated by events that do not impact them personally. For example, as I was teaching my course, one of the big news stories was the controversy about Joe Rogan’s podcasts on Spotify, in which he provided misinformation about the coronavirus. My students and I discussed Spotify’s response and whether it was effective. Because Spotify is a well-known global brand, this example could be taught in similar courses around the world.

Third, use multimedia simulations to engage students. For many, it is a transformative experience when they act as managers in crisis situations.

Finally, create assignments that are related to the students’ work environments. This doesn't just increase engagement. It also is another way to demonstrate that concepts discussed in class have direct relevance to students’ jobs.

I believe that communicating effectively during a crisis is a critical skill for executives in a wide range of industries around the world. There will always be more crises, so there also should be leaders who understand how to steer their organizations through perilous times.

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Daniel Laufer
Associate Professor, Wellington School of Business and Government, Victoria University of Wellington
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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