Challenge of Information Uncertainty in Crises

Crises and disasters are by definition, sudden, dynamic, and unpredictable events. Due to the unexpected nature of many crisis situations and consequences that are often hard to foresee, crisis managers need to acknowledge the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in a crisis situation.  Uncertainty is the inability to determine the present or predict the future. Organizations experience uncertainty “due to lack of information, due to the complexity of the information, or due to questions about the quality of the information.”

Uncertainty created by a crisis about what to say and how to make sense of the situation is a key communication challenge. When a crisis occurs, there is usually the public inquiry about responsibility, causes, and the impact on stakeholders. The public would like to know who is responsible, why the crisis happened, and how they can protect themselves. While stakeholders often want clear and quick answers to these questions in order to make sense of what happened and make decisions about what actions to take to protect themselves, it is often difficult to meet these information needs. The crisis events might be still unfolding, the full scale of the disaster may still be unknown, and the investigation process may take a long time to reach a conclusion. In some cases, such as nuclear contamination, the ultimate impact on stakeholders could be uncertain, complex, and open to public debate and argument.

This inherent uncertainty often complicates the decision to issue warning messages, such as recalls of food products that may be contaminated. Warnings and recalls often must be issued even when some level of uncertainty exists about the exact nature of the harm. If the crisis manager waits until all uncertainty is reduced, this could mean that the warning comes too late.

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