Communication can prove challenging for companies in the best of times, but even more so in a crisis. Sometimes those are organization-specific crises where they're the only one in the spotlight. Then there are the crises we cannot as easily prepare for, including natural disasters or the current situation with the coronavirus COVID-19.
Moments of crisis are where thoughtful, strategic communication is most important. Do it right and show your organizational strength and build loyalty. Do it wrong and be remembered for your weaknesses.
This is an Opinion
Here are a few communications tips from someone who's been in the trenches with many companies at those moments where every word matters.
There are times when you need to circle the wagons and times when you need to be in front leading. In times like this, company leaders have a responsibility to guide the conversation among their staff, customers and vendors.
That means sticking to the facts instead of feeding fears or rumors. It also means getting in front of an issue and showing that you have the best interests of your people in mind, regardless of the challenges you face. Be transparent, be confident and guide the conversation so that you're in control of what is being told to your stakeholders.
Consider Your Audience
Your audience should always shape and influence the nature of your communication, but you must also be consistent. In a crisis, you will not always have the luxury of segmenting the audience for your communications.
Rather than ignore your audience and release generalized communications, though, you should consider everyone. Realize that the internal note you send to your staff could show up on someone else's social media account. Off-hand comments to the media will be consumed by your internal staff. Ensure that everything you say carries the right message to all of your unique audiences versus saying nothing to any of them.
One of the most important things for company leaders to realize is that it won't be easy. Careful, thoughtful communications that help your employees, customers and vendors weather the storm will be remembered and rewarded once this storm has passed.
Have a Crisis Communications Plan
The best time to plan for a crisis is yesterday. Without a solid crisis communications plan in place, you'll be left scrambling to keep up. That's a losing scenario, so take time to plan ahead and identify priorities.
You should also outline all your contingencies. Do you have a business continuity plan that includes details on how staff can work remotely? It's COVID-19 today, but it could be floods or a tornado tomorrow. Figure out how to make those contingency plans work before you need them and understand how you're going to communicate with your audiences when the time comes. Then put it on paper, make sure everyone is familiar with what it says and set a calendar reminder to dust it off every six months to make sure everyone is still up to speed.
If you don't have a plan and you're in the midst of all this, at minimum do some scenario planning with your team. Think: if this, then this … Identify uncertainties and different "realities" of what might happen in the future for your business.
Be the Leader You Are
There is an undeniable level of chaos and fear of the unknown in our communities right now, but if we think through our communications to clients, vendors and partners, we can help set a tone of remaining calm and vigilant.
As business leaders, we need to ensure our messaging does not amplify rumors or increase anxiety, hurting the markets, our businesses and the economy in general. On the other hand, we need to understand this is a real crisis; we must put processes in place that keep our people and our customers safe and healthy.
If we as business owners commit to doing the right thing, having the courageous conversations and supporting our community leaders during this unprecedented time, we will weather this storm.