How Not To Communicate In The Wake Of A Crisis
Avoid these common mistakes brands make with their PR and social media content during troubled times
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On March 11, 2020, the world changed when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 virus outbreak a pandemic. In the period since, the number of organizations making major structural decisions to protect their workforces and financial stability has escalated dramatically.
When we make fundamental changes to the way people work and how services and products are delivered, the resulting uncertainty requires a commensurate escalation in the internal and external communications of the business. How businesses communicate with their employees, customers, suppliers, and the wider industry must be approached strategically, transparently, and, above all, with empathy, while at all times protecting one of the most important elements of any organization– its reputation.
While there is much written as to what you should do when communicating in a crisis, value can also be gleaned by considering what not to do when the proverbial hits the organizational fan.
It's a well-known acronym in the sales industry, but fully applicable when communicating during a crisis. Avoid creating more FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, all of which can be avoided if you follow the advice below:
1. Resist knee-jerk reactions It is common during chaotic periods for leaders to be under enormous amounts of stress from stakeholders, because, generally during a crisis, the buck stops at the top. Tempers are frayed, and there isn't enough time for those in control to research, evaluate and consider strategic responses.
However, it is during such high-stress situations that snap decisions can have amplified negative effects on emotions, so responses should go through several parties to get a balanced opinion from various perspectives. Who, what, and where the reaction to communications will come from should be taken into account.
Rather like a game of chess, the reactions should be considered along with potential future repercussions. Leaders must demonstrate CHAT while communicating during a crisis, which stands for the below:
- Consistency: deciding on your position and sticking to it
- Honesty: never lie, or you will lose all credibility forever, and tarnish your reputation
- Accountability: take ownership of your messaging
- Transparency: once you have decided what can be made public, ensure it is disseminated to your team, and there is uniformity and conviction
2. Don't share false facts There's no time like a crisis for people believing unsubstantiated information, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been an extreme example of this, with all sorts of conflicting evidence and opinions from experts and people in influence contributing with well-publicized contrary views.
We always firmly stress clients must stay away from any type of rumor, assumption, or conjecture. Release non-researched information that you are not 100% sure of at your peril, as the backlash during emotional times can be swift, severe, and widespread. Equally important is to avoid "winging it," or straying from your area of expertise on the situation regarding the organization's activities and plans. Stick to only the details you are in a position to impart information on– leaving scientific information to the respective experts.
3. Don't use your everyday tone of voice When it's "business as usual," organizations have a lot of freedom when it comes to the tone of voice they use, with some even opting to shock as a sales tool. The same rules don't apply when crisis hits.
Always approach messages with empathy, as sensitivity levels are high. Consider how all messaging will be perceived by individuals who might be facing financial or family concerns, or even various levels of depression during difficult times. The way something is phrased can completely change the way a message is received and perceived, so run communications through the senior crisis team in order to get valuable additional perspectives on it.
All this being said, as much as it may seem the easier way out, do not bury your head in the sand as an organization, both internally and externally. Through offering support and useful information, it will help all stakeholders pull together better towards the shared objective of coming out the other side intact, and even potentially stronger as a unit.
4. Don't send messages that provide no value One of the biggest communications eye-openers of the COVID-19 crisis has been the deluge of non-helpful marketing email spam. I'm certainly not discouraging email marketing, but during challenging times, marketing messages that provide no value are nothing other than an irritant. Our inboxes are clogged with spam loosely related to the pandemic that offer zero value.
For example, I have been inundated with emails beginning with the phrase, "In difficult times, we must work together." This is usually followed by information completely unrelated to the outbreak. These organizations are clearly using the pandemic as an excuse to generally touch base with their users and remind them they exist. Think three times before sending out any email blasts unless they provide support, a discount offer, or some other tangible benefit from reading the content, or it will evoke resentment.
5. Be cautious when sharing your success It's incredibly important not to be seen to be profiting from misfortune. Even if you are offering in-demand products or services during a crisis, the wrong choice of message could be construed as gloating. I'm not discouraging businesses from sharing news that creates optimism in the market, but this must be done tactfully.
A well-crafted release, email, or blog can build confidence and inspire. However, boasting about your increase in orders, with no regard to the impacts being felt by the wider community, will earn you no friends. Instead, why not offer advice to businesses struggling to overcome challenges brought on by the pandemic? Not only will you communicate a position of strength, but also that you understand true success is measured by how you add value to the wider industry and bring organizations together.
6. Don't wait Last but not least, you should never wait to prepare for a potential crisis communications situation until after it happens. As with most elements of business, preparation and a strategic approach is the key to success. Owners and managers of operations can predict worst-case scenarios, and then devise the best ways to communicate during such an event.
In most cases, your most important audiences are your team and your customers. In many cases, holding and if-asked statements may need to be put in place for potentially controversial situations, particularly where the media might get involved. Run through a difficult crisis communications scenario– for example, should an employee contract the COVID-19 crisis and die from the disease, or the organization is somehow found culpable for the spread of the disease.
Foresee and then play out the potential consequences of this happening to help you streamline and prepare for the situation should it ever occur in real life. It will also help you to prepare social posts, holding statements, and templates. What would you do if a media outlet picked up a story that was potentially devastating to your organization at 3am on a Saturday morning, and ran with the story without comment, because there was no one around? If you know there is a chance of this happening, then you should not put off having a system in place ready to respond 24/7.