CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS: 8 TIPS FOR EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATING DURING UNCERTAINTY
By Liza Palermo, Digital Infusion
For the many organizations, large and small, that are struggling with uncertainty due to the Corona Virus and economic volatility, I’d like to offer some practical advice gleaned from my 25+ years of experience in crisis communications.
1. ESTABLISH A CONSISTENT DECISION-MAKING GROUP. The first fundamental step is for your organization to identify the appropriate group of decision makers and establish regular communication sessions among them. For most companies, this includes the organization’s leader, its legal counsel, communications leader, and individuals who can knowledgably represent the financial, employee and customer perspectives of your business.
Under emergency situations decision making must be well-informed, well-organized, clear and prompt. Having a core group in consistent and close communication and funneling all significant decisions through this team will avoid organizational confusion and enable effective decision making.
2. CENTRALIZE COMMUNICATIONS & UPDATES. People in every part of your business today have access to an abundance of communication vehicles — email, web-conferencing, websites, text messaging, and social media – which is a great thing during normal business conditions. But during a crisis, well-meaning team members can do more harm than good by taking it upon themselves to broadly communicate crisis-related updates with employees or customers.
Crisis-related updates issued from various different sources creates disjointed, incomplete and potentially inconsistent information. The unintended result is people spend a lot of time going back and forth with one another comparing notes and trying to find the “inside scoop,” ultimately creating even greater anxiety and speculation.
By centralizing communications to one source, people become assured that the information is reliable, the source predictable and that they are equally “in the know.”
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE. People have low tolerance for “fluff” and ancillary information, especially during a crisis. Since your primary goal is information comprehension and retention, it’s best to stick with the basics and try to limit each piece to no more than three messages.
4. CHOOSE YOUR MEDIUM WISELY. Different communication tools require different content lengths and should be selected based on your purpose. For example:
- A tweet is limited to 140 characters. So, it is really just an informative headline that can lead people to a link for more information.
- Texting should be reserved for high priority, critical updates. Similar to a tweet, it’s best to keep a text message to one or two sentences that clearly state the most critical information (think of a news headline and sub-headlines) with a link for more information.
- Email is best used for sharing more complete information, while still following the premise of keeping it simple. Using sub-headlines and bullets to make information easier to digest is best. Question and answer formats are also very effective.
- Blogs, articles and/or memos are the lengthiest, most complete sources of information (in a crisis try to keep these under 1,000 words, that’s roughly one well-crafted paragraph for each of your three messages) that your tweet or text or even an email would link to for more information.
- Video communications can be an effective medium IF you have a spokesperson that is GREAT in front of a camera. That means visibly comfortable, articulate, engaging and concise. A person who trips over their words, appears stiff, scripted or nervous, is verbose or unengaging can do more harm than good (opt for a written communication instead). Its best to keep video communications to 1-2mins at the most.
- Webinars or online meetings are great tools for interaction among a group of people, allowing for live questions and answers, group discussions and creating a sense of community among employees or customers who may otherwise feel isolated. Making recorded playbacks of the session available is a great way to share the knowledge with an extended group of people.
5. NEVER SPECUALTE OR LIE. Maintaining integrity is fundamental to maintaining trust among your employees and customers, as well as calm. This may seem obvious, but I have seen well-intended organizations paint a rosy picture that did not materialize. Or speculate on a benefit or service they thought they could offer, only to have to recant later. Promising something you are unable to deliver is far worse than promising nothing at all.
Whether it’s the status of your employees’ jobs or benefits, or the ability to deliver services to your customers, communicate only once decisions are firm and specify the applicable timeframe, such as “for the foreseeable future” or “pending further updates.”
If your decisions are inter-dependent with an external authority, such as the CDC or County regulations include that in your message. For example, “in accordance with the CDC’s current guidelines of limiting interaction to groups of 10 people or less, the following changes in business operations are in effect immediately.”
6. BE AS FORTHRIGHT AS POSSIBLE. It may not always be possible to answer the questions that loom, such as, “Will there be layoffs?” “Will our work hours be reduced?” “When will we resume business as usual?” etc. When this is the case, it’s best to say so.
For example, “Our organization, similar to those across the country, is facing unchartered waters. We cannot say how long this virus will pose a health risk and when businesses will return to normal. What we can say with certainty is that we are carefully monitoring communications from the CDC, and our federal, state and local officials. We are taking every measure possible to be ready and able to quickly return to business as usual once we are able, while remaining socially responsible and putting the health of our employees, customers and the nation first.”
7. GATHER FEEDBACK FROM THE FRONTLINE. The best planned communications are ineffective unless they meet the needs of the people for whom they are intended.
- Create a vehicle for gathering feedback on employee communications. Include a person to email or call with more questions. If the burden is too much for one person, you can create an email address, such as “information@MyCompany.com” that can be monitored by a group of resources.
- Monitor social media for comments and chatter. Assign a resource to this task on a regular basis and promptly address any concerns directly on that same social vehicle.
- Proactively reach out to the frontline for feedback. Depending on your audience, you may not proactively receive the feedback you need. Employees could be shy about asking what is really on their minds. You might hear from only a small portion of the most outspoken customers on social or other mediums. Ask people with a direct link to the frontline to proactively solicit feedback. Address the feedback you receive in your next communication.
8. NEVER LOSE THE HUMAN ELEMENT. Every crisis-related, broad communication should be reviewed by your legal counsel. In today’s environment of 24/7 rapid communication, most legal experts understand the court of public opinion can be as important as the court of law and they work collaboratively with communication professionals to issue timely, plain-language and responsible communication.
While communications should be forthright, concise and get to the facts quickly, we must never forget that people are on the other side of that email, article or text. People who may be anxious, in dire financial situations and scared for themselves and their families.
I’m not suggesting over-the-top lip service or pandering. But I am suggesting sincere recognition of the plight people are facing and your commitment to do whatever you can as an organization, or as a person, to ease the burden.
WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
For some organizations, the human touch may simply mean keeping families in your thoughts, committing to regular feedback and updates, and re-allocating resources to meet a public need (such as school bus drivers now delivering meals and police officers distributing laptops to students for online learning). For others, with the means and resources, this has come in the form of donating equipment and facilities, holding complimentary informational sessions or offering partial pay for at-risk individuals unable to come to work. There is a role for everyone to play no matter how small your business or specific your individual talent.
If I can provide any guidance or answer any communications or marketing questions for business owners or leaders struggling through this economic volatility, please leave your comment below. I will do my best to respond in a timely manner.
About the Author
Liza Palermo is a 25-year staffing industry executive and co-founder of Digital Infusion, an integrated marketing and communication agency. She has served as a trusted advisor to hundreds of business leaders, from Fortune 100 CEOs to start-ups, on marketing, public relations, crisis communications, branding and issues management.