THOUGHTS ON CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS IN TIMES OF COVID-19
A crisis is unfolding. So why not write a blog on the ‘essentials’ of crisis communications?
First, because one can easily look up those ‘essentials’, read commentaries, watch tutorials or find checklists online. Thanks to the democratising effects of the Internet, that content is readily available, aplenty. But heads-up! For as intelligible as they are, their usefulness all too often depends on the advancement – and complexity or sensitivity – of each individual crisis situation. And each case is different anyways.
Second, because even crisis communications cannot stand on their own. In order to contain and convey a message, communications need to reflect some kind of action or value. Action is founded on values, and therefore values come first. And in critical times in particular do values like solidarity, confidence, loyalty, a fighting spirit and teamwork matter. Seeking to cushion the negative impact is important, but being positive about the opportunities ahead of you is just about as important. Celebrating accomplishments is good, but challenging yourself every now and then or questioning confirmed habits and old practices will prove better. Therefore, navigating a crisis requires the right mindset and leadership. Then comes the communication… By the way, those are values typically prevailing in stable and resilient family businesses, with some proof of performance.
Third, in the context of COVID-19, there is not one single crisis situation. The situation is global and even though for now, it is mostly sanitary, logistical and increasingly economic, its social and human dimensions are bound to hit very soon with unmitigated force. There was no immediate accident, incident or issue that would or could have triggered a ready-made crisis communications plan. (Well maybe, at the high level of national and international health authorities…). And if you have one, your crisis management manual will be of limited help, as would be yet another blog with the 101 of crisis communications. (Not to say that this is not a time to give your preparedness for such circumstances a thought.)
For each and every one of us, COVID-19 will create many different crises and sensitive situations. Of smaller and larger scope. And every single one of them will require anticipation and preparation where possible, a dedicated response when needed, and a follow-up if opportune. Every single one of them will demand a communication that probably transcends the disciplines of public relations and marketing, internal or external communications, etc. for the time being. We therefore put together a set of general recommendations, directly or indirectly related to communications, that apply to any case, whatever the size of the company, its age or its field of activity.
- Organisation | Stay informed. Crises are times of change, disruption and shifting dynamics. Make sure the existing media and regulatory monitoring systems shared with all directors allow you to stay fully informed and up-to-date with those shifts, and to share them internally (see below): with the latest governmental decisions, market updates, competitors’ innovations, etc. At the same time, remember that not every piece of news is important. Weekly or monthly papers for instance allow you to analyse the bigger picture.
- Organisation | Centralise and coordinate. In times of fast-flowing information, of widespread misinformation and of technically or scientifically complex issues broadly debated in the public realm, centralised communications matter. Because they allow for coherence, consistency and – to the extent possible – control. A task force that comprises your key people (besides coms, for instance HR, IT, a legal representative, etc.) is desirable. Put differently, too many (com) cooks spoil the broth. Here, you might also wish to check on all logistics for your task force to meet, for the planning to be handled and the communications to be implemented, such as the accessibility and workings of IT systems at a distance, in a situation that is likely here to stay.
- Communication | Prioritise internal communications. For employees just like for those on top, this is a time of grave uncertainty. For them as well, it will be important to ‘stay informed’ and to understand the situation and its impact. This cannot be stressed enough. As stated in the previous article, internal communications therefore need to come first. Try to provide regular updates on your decisions. Keep the messages clear, and do not shy away from sharing the reasoning behind those decisions. Include information on the health and safety measures taken, and, as a suggestion, consult your employees on any additional needs or concerns.
- Communication | Personalise external communications. Just like for your staff – or for that matter like in any communication – understanding the legitimate concerns (e.g. procedural delays, etc.) and expectations (e.g. immediate availability, etc.) of your target audiences is important. Take the time to map them, to develop messaging, to prepare a Q&A document, and to identify the most direct, customised and credible means of getting in touch with key stakeholders. Additionally, on some matters, consulting with peers or seeking external advice and perspectives can prove instructive and beneficial. It will be worthwhile for all people at the top of your organisation to reserve time for this. Show interest and empathy (if authentic), and be careful with any kind of promotions – this might not be the right time.
- Preparation | Brace yourself for inquiries. COVID-19 dominates the news. As the situation unfolds, media attention is drawn to many parts of society and of the economy. You might prefer not to comment on how the virus affects your business. But then prepare to discuss how you adapted, reorganised and upheld your ‘system’, how your employees can work safely, and how your customers’ expectations are met. Here, you’re the expert, and here you’ll have a story to tell. Expect exposure, if you want it. Notwithstanding expectable inquiries by other stakeholders, like your employees, your network of partners, etc.
- Preparation | Plan for the future. After the crisis is before the crisis, they say in German. Take a moment to think about what has changed, and how you work now. Evaluate your new habits, practices and (digitalised?) procedures. Try to sustain what works. Not only for the second, autumnal wave of COVID-19 that some predict… It’s not the time to mourn an elusive status quo. And if you find the time (and nerves), why not think what your company could give back to society – in a case of very contextualised community care.
We think these points will allow you to not only manage the risks posed by communications, to seize opportunities in communications and to build up reputational capital, but above all, to stay focused on your business, your business continuity and contingency plan, your HR action plans, etc. First and foremost.