COVID-19 is a stark reminder that all businesses must have pre-set, clear mechanisms in place to manage crises.
Every business is vulnerable, and some will face more than one crisis during their lifespan. Being better prepared enables companies to respond effectively and emerge all the stronger. Though approaches will vary on a granular level between businesses, there are core principles of communication that apply in all cases.
Assess, plan and manage
When confronted with any crisis, the first essential step is to take an objective view of the issues you face. Ask yourself whether it is a genuine crisis and determine what is at stake for your business and your stakeholders. While it may be challenging, it is important to do whatever you can to suspend emotion at this initial stage and throughout the planning process; all crises have human impacts, so empathy is vital, but an overly-emotional approach can cloud your thinking and lead to rash decisions.
Do not become a hostage to fortune by taking positions in the short term if you know you will have to U-turn in the days or weeks ahead. Rather than examining the here and now, anticipate how the situation could develop and how you will need to respond in the future, especially in the worst-case scenario. As Franz-Joseph Mille, Chairman at Carousel Logistics, highlights, it is imperative “to act fast, and not to count on things being the same as before. This is key for leadership, as employees may not understand the severity of the situation, and continue working on plans which may be rendered obsolete by the crisis at play.”
After considering how your crisis might unfold, put in place and mobilise a dedicated communications group. This involves a group with specific roles, a decision-making process and a clearly identified individual who is responsible for all final approvals. This group should sit alongside your crisis operations team but not share key members – you do not want people who are tasked with managing your organisation’s operational response to the crisis to be distracted by the everyday cut and thrust of your communications.
The next step is to activate your monitoring processes. Appoint a designated person or persons to gather information from multiple sources, verify it, and relay it to the crisis team. Log all inbound media enquiries and ensure that you are monitoring both social media and news channels.
It is important that you gather information from more than just your own business. Widen your sources externally and prioritise the most trusted. For instance, in the case of COVID-19, the UK Government, the NHS, BBC and trade associations, to name but a few, have been key sources. Information from competitors and social media is also useful, but only use what can be verified. Verify your own business information too, focusing on information received through the channel established with the operations team.
Gauging wider sentiment is essential when reviewing all your current and planned sales and marketing activity. Your default position should be to stop all marketing until you have thoroughly reviewed your messages in the context of the crisis.
Define channels and clear messaging
Your team must decide the channels you will use to communicate your messages throughout the crisis, and more than one person on the team should have access to these.
It is important you establish how you are going to use your existing social media and keep in mind that it is rarely going to be appropriate to set up new ones in the middle of a crisis. You should then confirm your protocol for responding on social media and direct audiences. You need to be aware that the media will look at social channels for material, which could include unsatisfied customer reviews or employees giving their own side of the story.
Consistency is critical
The core of your messaging to all stakeholder groups should be consistent. This not only ensures clarity, but also avoids the risk of one audience group leaking conflicting information to another. It builds comfort among your audiences to hear a consistent and clear message with no ambiguity.
However, how you communicate with each of your stakeholder groups should vary in tone to suit each audience. For instance, you will use different language when talking to a youth consumer audience compared to a government regulator.
Designating a media spokesperson, developing reactive media statements and having a Q&A ready to respond to all those likely (and less likely) questions, will ensure that you communicate your pre-decided messaging succinctly, and alleviate anxieties around media enquiries.
When selecting your designated media spokesperson, ensure that this is someone who has been trained to handle interview situations and can convey authority and reassurance in difficult times. Though your spokesperson may find difficult questions uncomfortable, do not delete difficult questions from the Q&As you prepare for each crisis. Removing these will not make them any less likely to be asked, and it will leave your spokesperson less prepared.
You will likely be responding to media enquiries with the approved reactive statements or Q&As. However, one golden rule about crisis communications (alongside ‘prepare’) is never say never – both in your answers and in your planning. There may be opportunities to provide someone for interview, either in a scenario where you have a positive story to tell, or where refusing participation will put you in a more negative light. Your crisis team must advise on the merits and dangers of both.
No matter how you choose to respond to the media, it is important to keep your word. If you say you will get back to journalists then do so, and if you promise an update, deliver it on time, even if you cannot provide everything they are asking for.
Should you keep communicating?
As difficult as they may be, crises are a time when you can show your values and use your brand as a force for good. As Jenny Davies, CEO of M247 puts it, you must ask yourself: “what is that legacy that we want to leave with customers and colleagues about how we have conducted ourselves during this period?”
Put short term commercialism to one side and really consider what you can do in this time of crisis to support your stakeholders. This is one area where a genuine human approach can guide your actions – what can you do that will make people’s lives better right now? In the context of COVID-19, ensure your staff feel included by giving them clear, empathetic, and consistent updates. It is vital “to be visible; to be seen as calm and reassuring,” says Andy Hogarth, CEO at Helping Hands. “When people are worried, they need certainty and it is our job to provide it, taking care to always be honest and clear.”
After the storm passes
Once the crisis has passed, go back and analyse your response to it. Did you assess the likely outcomes correctly? Did your systems work? If they did not, what can you change right now to make sure they do so next time? Did your audiences react the way you expected them to and if not, why not? And most of all, did your organisation demonstrate the values and behaviour you hoped it would? If not, determine why and identify what you can do to change this. After all, it is in times of crisis that a business’s true character shines through.
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