With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world, it has become evident to many organizations that they were caught woefully unprepared to deal with the level of upheaval that the current pandemic left them in – not just from a business standpoint, but from a communications standpoint too. And though the COVID-19 pandemic is of a magnitude that most individuals and businesses have never seen before, crises themselves aren’t new and non-COVID related crises will continue to plague organizations even in the midst of the current pandemic.
So as organizations develop their plans for reopening and when the retrofitting of offices for the ‘new normal’ is complete, I urge business leaders to revisit their response to this crisis and use it as a chance to be better prepared for future crises, particularly when it comes to communicating with their most important stakeholders.
And though no business, organization or individual can be 100% prepared for every possible scenario, there are a few key steps an organization can and should take to be on offense when communicating during a crisis.
Do have a plan
The most important thing for any company is to be prepared and that requires having a plan. Leaders should spend time thinking about the most likely crisis scenarios for their company and create an action plan AND a communication plan should one of those scenarios come to life.
It’s not necessary to try and plan for every possible crisis that could impact your business, but it is important to think through various types of crises since each will likely require a very different response. For instance, a natural disaster that leaves the physical building uninhabitable versus an act of workplace violence would solicit different action and communication efforts.
Part of planning for a crisis also should include training key staff on what to do and what their roles are or are not (and where to find the plan) in the event of an actual crisis. There really is no substitution for being prepared and the companies we work with that have a crisis plan naturally navigate the uncertain waters of a crisis far better than those that don’t.
Do create your key messages before a crisis hits
Every company should have a set of core messages that provide key information about the organization itself and its values. Those messages should be reflected, in some way, in every communication that comes from the company, including in crisis communications. The fundamental messages about an organization don’t change during a crisis (though they may be modified), but many organizations forget to articulate them in the moment.
Write them in the crisis plan.
In addition, it’s wise to include template crisis-specific messages that have been vetted and approved in the crisis plan. These most certainly will need to be tweaked for an actual crisis, but when speed is critical, it’s best to have something to start from.
Do communicate promptly and be transparent
Remember, the goal is for the organization to be viewed as the most accurate and timely source of information so speed and transparency should guide the entire response. Be prompt in communications to all stakeholders. A lack of communication from the organization easily allows others to shape and control the narrative.
Be forthright and clear in all communications. If you don’t know something at the time…say so. Some information is better than no information. Just be clear what you know, what you don’t and when you plan to share more.
Don’t sugar coat or mislead in any way
One of the worst things an organization can do in its communications is to hide the facts or sugar coat a crisis. If there is any wrongdoing by the company, take accountability for it. Don’t try and cover it up or place blame. Reputations are built over time. They can also be repaired over time, but only if the organization is honest, demonstrates credibility and is viewed as the most accurate source of information.
Don’t be afraid to show human emotion
It’s amazing how many companies and/or leaders unintentionally sound callous and cold in a statement or communication to their key stakeholders during a highly sensitive crisis situation. One of the very best things an organization can do is connect with those they care most about on a human level. It shows you care about the people involved, not just about the bottom line.