For the last week or so, governments and companies alike have struggled with crisis communications. I’ve managed internal and external communications through some serious matters, from an anthrax attack on a university to less life-threatening situations such as corporate takeovers. While this situation is certainly unusual – it is my first pandemic, anyway – the principles of talking to your teams and customers during an emergency remain the same.
Where to Start
- Tell them what you know, when you know it. This can require a balance of patience and urgency. You want to make sure your leadership is clear on the next steps before communicating out to your internal audience, but you can’t wait until everything is perfect. Crises are fluid, and your strategy will likely evolve. Strive to keep people informed, let them know you’ll keep them updated as best you can. Your cadence of communications may ebb and flow—some weeks there may be a need for daily emails and town halls; as a situation becomes more stable, that may not be necessary. Also, don’t be afraid to say you just don’t know. These situations have many variables, and you may simply have to wait to see what happens next. That leads us to:
- Be transparent, genuine and positive. So often, communicators and leaders overthink the message. Trust your instincts, and talk from the heart. Be thoughtful of everyone’s point of view and how any situation can have a different impact on individuals. Talk to your audiences with empathy and openness and be authentic. If you have to spend hours figuring out what to say, you probably have strayed off the path of genuine crisis communication. Most of us know what to say if we think with our hearts.
- About those audiences—know who you are talking to and tailor the information you share to that audience. Internal teams need different information than external audiences. Thinking critically about what info each set of constituents needs, then be concise and off as many details as you can. Make sure you are clear that questions are welcome.
- Balance consistency with agility and flexibility. There is a fine line between spamming and nurturing—and crisis communications are no different. As with any communication, be sure you have value to offer—new information, new details, etc. Don’t email just to check the box.
Other Crisis Communications Tips:
- Leverage a mix of media to your advantage. Pop a quick update on Twitter or Facebook, then follow up with a more detailed message once all the Ts are crossed.
- Don’t get bogged down in perfect. It bears repeating that keeping your team and customers up to date is your primary goal, you can always add more details as the situation calls for.
- Make sure you have one voice. One person writing and serving as a clearinghouse so you can be certain the message is straight on all your media—website, social, press releases and communications to your key audiences.
- Have one spokesperson. It simplifies a situation where details are changing quickly and you may have one person managing multiple communication efforts. Have that one person serve as the face of your company to clarify the message.
- Pause for strategy before you start to type. I know it can feel awkward to raise your hand to a CEO and say: We need to stop for a second. But hitting the pause button until everyone is on the same page BEFORE you start your outreach is essential. It sure beats having to go back and fix mistakes.
It’s likely the impact of this pandemic will resonate throughout the U.S. and the business world for months, and ongoing communications will be essential long term. Keeping these ideas front of mind will help you stay focused and successful.