Three Guiding Principles For Companies When It Comes To Communicating A Crisis
By Phil Singer, CEO
The COVID-19 outbreak has the White House, federal health agencies and state and local governments scrambling to provide answers to an increasingly anxious public. Daily press briefings, interactive FAQ forums and real-time Twitter updates are just a few of the communication channels that officials are using to disseminate important facts and guidance on a regular basis.
But many companies — particularly those without crisis communications protocol in place or the round-the-clock support necessary to manage response efforts — have suddenly found themselves flat-footed in a fire, and by no fault of their own.
The good news is that it’s not too late to correct course. In fact, now is the time for companies to ensure they have a robust crisis communications response plan in place for issues like COVID-19.
In the immediate term, faced with urgent concerns from clients, customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders, companies of all sizes need to get their story straight on everything from whether certain products or services will be disrupted to how travel restrictions might impact operations to managing what they convey to their workforces, investors and other stakeholders.
In the long term, this communications playbook should be the first step toward building out a larger crisis apparatus that can be immediately activated in the event of future emergency scenarios and the long-term impact of the pandemic. This process includes mapping out and quantifying all potential risks, instituting an early warning system, and producing internal and external messages for each case.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach — something I’ve learned over two decades of fighting all kinds of communications fires, first for high-profile political campaigns and now for a wide range of companies — there are three fundamental principles that can help pave the way.
In a crisis situation, decisive and steady leadership is paramount. When things seem to be spiraling out of control and new information is breaking by the minute, reacting impulsively is the quickest way to make matters worse. Those who have a vested interest in your company want to know they have an unshakable leadership team at the helm.
Show your stakeholders that they are in good hands by transparently providing clarity and direction. For example, to reassure rattled employees who see plunging markets as a sign of impending job loss, a regular email from the top briefing detailed steps your team is taking to mitigate losses could go a long way.
Don’t wait for investors or any other stakeholders to call you. Take command: Be unambiguous about the proactive measures being taken and let them know that there is an open line of communications for all questions and concerns. Additionally, avoid sugarcoating hard truths — doing so will only produce more questions and sow mistrust.
Consistency in substance, tone and timing is key. Sending mixed messages from a variety of different people at all different points throughout the day causes chaos and leaves stakeholders wondering where they can turn for information they can trust. Reaching consensus on all messages before they are distributed either internally or externally, designating point people for particular issues, and establishing a regular cadence of communication can go a long way toward creating a sense of order.
Practicing consistency can be the difference between customers who cut and run and those who decide to weather the storm as partners. If, for example, you have several customers who had been expecting a bulk order to arrive and are now nervous about potential delays, you might consider setting up a recurring conference call where supply delays and the precise reasons for them can be clearly explained. This can help reset expectations and enable clients to plan for the months ahead.
Deal in facts.
There are many moving pieces in any crisis, but that is no excuse for trading in half-truths and best guesses, even if others around you may be doing so. It is critical to deal in facts from credible experts and verified sources, even if it means waiting an hour before addressing an alarming breaking-news headline.
If your team has decided to send an advisory to customers in a certain region of the country recommending that they exercise caution, make sure you are drawing on information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, for instance, not from local news reports.
Dealing in facts is especially important for internal employee communication. For example, in the case of COVID-19, instructing employees to stay home and work remotely could raise fears and panic that somebody in the office or at a nearby location has contracted the illness. Be precise and factual in articulating why decisions are being made. For many, understanding how COVID-19 will impact their job is priority No. 1. Companies can and must play a central role in providing answers.
The communications challenges that have emerged as a result of this pandemic underscore the importance of crisis preparedness. The fact is that the companies that are best prepared to manage these types of situations are those that have thorough crisis plans in place for everything from the most likely scenarios to the Black Swan scenarios like what has stemmed from the coronavirus.