Energy emergency: What crisis communication do we need during a blackout?

Blog_G_C_#Foto 1

After the corona pandemic and during a tense situation of security policy, another crisis is already threatening the economy and society: the energy emergency. At this stage though, it is still difficult to predict the extent of this crisis in the winter and how severely it may affect our daily lives.

Regardless of what will happen in the end, the last two years have taught us to always be prepared for the unimaginable. An important and crucial element in crises is communication. Authorities, companies, NGOs, schools, suppliers – they all need to be able to communicate in a targeted and effective way in an exceptional situation. But what kind of crisis communication proves successful during a once-in-a-century event? And how do people tick in crisis situations? We explored these questions together with our guests Dr. Jörg Spicker, energy expert & senior strategic advisor at Swissgrid; Torben Emmerling, behavioral economist, founder & managing partner Affective Advisory; and Tiffany Bottlang, member of the executive board Rod Kommunikation and head of consulting Corona Kampagne BAG in our latest edition of the event series “Grips & Chips”.

Blog_G_C_#Foto 3

The actual energy situation in Switzerland
We are used to the lights always being on and take it for granted that electricity comes out of every socket. Behind this power supply, however, lies a highly complex structure. The current power grid in Europe is probably the largest man-made machine that will ever exist in this world and Switzerland is right in the middle of it. The potential power shortage in Switzerland this coming winter didn’t occur overnight. It rather is the result of various failures in the past, such as the lack of investment in production and grid facilities. Thus, it is not an abrupt energy crisis. More likely, we are talking about a complex energy situation in the medium to long term. Swissgrid shares the concerns of the authorities regarding the supply guarantee, but not only for the coming winter, but also for the following years. According to Swissgrid, the “energy crisis” that everyone is currently talking about should therefore be used as an opportunity to achieve a change in society’s awareness of the importance of the electricity grid and to maintain the political momentum caused by it. 

What makes it difficult for people to change their ways
This complex energy situation is opposed to an even more complex human being. Contrary to the original assumption of homo economicus, we now know enough about the human brain to recognize that humans act rationally in a restricted way only. The world is far too complex for our brain. Every day, we unconsciously absorb an amount of information equivalent to about 24 newspapers. Somehow, we have to decide what information we consider relevant and how to respond to it. Humans rely on shortcuts to reduce the complexity and judgment of decisions. Around 10,000 decisions we make daily happen unconsciously and are based on habits and routines. However, in certain situations this leads to deviations from normative behavior, so-called “biases”. Thus, certain information is not perceived correctly. Especially in situations like the current energy situation, where change is needed, such biases can block behavioral changes. It has been empirically proven that change affects people physically. So instead of changing our behavior, we fall back on our usual behavior patterns.

So how do you get people to make the behavioral changes in energy consumption that are currently necessary to prevent a potential energy shortage in the coming winter? Human behavior is dependent on its environment. Taking targeted measures in the immediate environment, so-called “nudging,” people can be pushed to make sustainable and more energy-efficient decisions. A successful strategy should therefore use scientific insights into human behavior to test evidence-based measures and ultimately integrate them successfully into practice. 

A successful crisis communication
So we currently are in a complex energy situation opposing a not-so-rational human. What does effective crisis communication look like in this area of conflict? As Daniel Koch, former head of Communicable Disease at the BAG, once said, “It’s not the measures that contain the crisis – it’s the communication that encourages the population to implement the measures.” Communication plays a key role in transmitting the measures and thus the desired change in human behavior.

Tiffany Bottlang, member of the management team Rod Kommunikation and head of consulting Corona campaign BAG, was able to gain important expertise from the crisis communication during the corona pandemic. A successful crisis communication should have a concise, activating and motivating crisis motto, with a high recognition value and allowing a quick assignment. Different colors and easy-to-understand pictograms can help reduce the complexity of the information and spread it as quickly as possible. Other important success factors are simplicity, clarity and proximity to the population. It is important to feel the vibe of the population to strike the right timing and tone. Finally, in a crisis, it is also important to anticipate the impossible as best as possible and to think through all eventualities from the outset.

As Switzerland’s largest communications agency, we strive every day to keep track of political, economic and social developments and phenomena, anticipating possible scenarios that could affect our clients. Crisis communication – and in particular advice on adequate crisis preparation – are an integral part of our service offering. The relevance of these disciplines is increasingly brought home to us.