The best prepared companies are finding the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched their emergency preparedness, crisis management and business continuity plans beyond what they ever imagined. It also created unique communication challenges.
Despite the changed environment, some of the basics of crisis communications remain the same. It’s still essential to speak openly and honestly to your audiences, to communicate quickly but strategically, to voice empathy and compassion when appropriate, and to take control of the messaging around your company.
In any crisis, whether it’s isolated to your company or a global pandemic, it is not the time for silence. You want to wait to have all the facts and communicate in a thoughtful manner, but your employees, clients, partners and other stakeholders are getting their messages from somewhere. Shouldn’t those messages, in large part, come from you?
In the pandemic environment, executives and communication professionals are finding the parameters around how to communicate quite different. As a result, how they accomplish this task may be unusual at best. Let’s examine these challenges by looking at each audience, starting with employees.
It’s the scale of this pandemic that is most tragic and frightening. More people are dying every day, and it is likely to continue for some time. There are no specific forecasts of when the crisis will pass beyond examining what other countries are enduring. The stock market has tanked and every business has been touched in some way, whether they’ve closed their doors forever or are adapting to a remote workforce and future uncertainties.
Everyone is worried. In such a situation, leadership should take steps early on to address employee concerns, implement emergency plans, and lay out a flexible and adaptive course of action. Leadership is one of the most critical components of a crisis communications situation. History is littered with leaders who failed to rise to the moment.
Those who have done it right have been front and center with their staff from the start. They’ve used a calm voice that does not minimize the impact of what is happening but does inspire confidence that they are doing everything they can to chart a thoughtful course and care for everyone’s well-being. That’s what inspires people to find solutions and keeps morale up in challenging times.
Saying “employee safety is the top priority” is almost cliché in this environment and has to be backed up by action. For example, it’s not enough to have people suddenly work remotely. You have to give them the tools and resources to do it. If there are staff reductions or other painful changes, everyone needs to know what you are doing to help them now as well as in the future. If you have an employee assistance program (EAP), now is the time to remind everyone.
Remember, employees are on the front line with clients, so they need to have prepared messaging, often in a Q&A format, to help them respond to questions and concerns accurately.
This crisis is global in scope, so everyone’s mailbox is full of messages from those with whom we do or have done business. I’ve seen some companies do everything wrong while others write exceptional messages. At this stage, it’s not the time to repeat the sequence of events in the world in several long paragraphs, but it is the time to let people know how you can help them.
My bank offers a great example. After a brief introduction, they bulleted out exactly the kinds of details I needed — changes to their service and hours, new limits on mobile deposits, and other practical information. In another example, a former insurance client sent a one paragraph email early in the crisis with the headline: “We’re here for you.” Isn’t that what we all really want to know?
I’m often asked how much is too much in communications. How do you stay connected without overwhelming clients with too many emails? Early on, you should set expectations about when and how audiences will hear from you. Then, if you know your audience, the formula is simple: Is the message sincere, timely, helpful and not self-serving? Your clients want specific details about information that affects their businesses and their transactions with you. What they don’t need are daily or weekly emails with generalities.
Stay in touch
Whether your community is local, national or global, now is the time to make sure your communications are in tune with that community and what they are experiencing. This is not the time to be opportunistic, whether it is an email to clients, a marketing message or a pitch to the media.
At all times, communications need to be helpful and compassionate in light of the human tragedy unfolding before all of us. And this can include picking up the phone and calling important and longtime clients.
When leaders have a steady grip on the helm and clear, forward-looking and honest messages that inspire, they have a better chance of leading their organizations out of any crisis with employees and clients who trust them and want to do business in the future.
Gary Kimball is president and founder of Kimball Hughes Public Relations, a Philadelphia-based public relations agency specializing in the insurance industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These opinions are the author’s own.