"Crisis" communications during the Covid-19 pandemic

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen many organisations issue a slew of communications to address situations that they are facing during this pandemic. Some of them have been great and on point, others.. let’s just say have areas to improve on.

Here are eight thoughts to consider when communicating during this challenging time:

1. Don’t defer all responsibilities to the government. In times of crisis, it is easy to say, “We are waiting to see what the government decides on next” Or, “The authorities have taken over responsibility, please talk to them instead”. Yes, often in times of a crisis, government agencies will take the lead in setting policy, guidelines and on occasion decide exactly what needs to be done. However, the audience, your audience, wants to know what you are doing as the leader of the organisation.

There are always proactive steps that you can take to look after your staff, your clients, your partners. Consider statements like; “We are working closely with the authorities during this pandemic to ensure we meet all health guidelines. Beyond what is immediately required, we are also….”. Being seen as proactive and going beyond the minimum will earn you more points with your audience, positioning you as a well as a trusted leader and one that they will want to continue working with after the crisis is over.

2. Announcing CSR initiatives is not crisis communications. A lot of organisations and “experts” can get caught in this trap. If your organisation is in trouble, doing CSR will not mitigate the situation. Instead, some of your audience will see it as a) you trying to misdirect attention from the problem at hand or that b) your focus is in the wrong area. This will make you either a charlatan or an organisation that doesn’t know its priorities. Either of which does not bode well for you.

3. Since this Covid-19 pandemic is a “slow-burn” crisis, don’t inundate your audience with over frequent communiques. After a while, your audience will just “switch off” and stop paying attention to your messages. Over the past month, I’ve seen some companies send out communications every other day. Yes, in most crisis situations, we often encourage organisations to communicate regularly to their audience to keep them informed of developments. But that is for “fast burn” crisis, something that happens over a few hours or days. COVID-19 has been around for over a month now. If you send out too many messages, the audience will get bored and stop paying attention. This is particularly bad because when you have something that is especially important, there is a good chance your audience will just skip over it.

4. Which brings us to this, be strategic and not reactive. Take bold, decisive steps. Instead of taking small baby steps every day, look ahead and implement decisions that you can tell will be required in the days to come. If you have staff that need to be hospitalised, don’t just send them to the hospital, announce that you will be taking efforts to look out for them, but also will support their families in ways that you can. The earlier you announce longer term initiatives, the more you will be seen as a decisive leader. If you do it late, you could be seen as only doing so under external pressure.

5. Be empathetic. I cannot stress this enough – When it comes to crises, your first and foremost focus has to be on people. When you focus on the people, you almost never go wrong. Some people have asked me about the recent firing of the US Navy carrier captain. He put his people ahead and got fired. I’ll ask you this, at this point, if he is reinstated, do you think his crew will not willingly follow him and have his back, because they know that he had theirs? And I bet that resonates not just with his crew, but many other serving personnel in the US navy right now.

6. Recognise that different audiences have different interests. I don’t mean say totally different things to different people. Your overarching message has to be consistent. However, your staff are keen to know in minute details of what steps you are taking to protect them. Your customers want to know what steps you are taking to protect their interests. Your investors and partners want to know how your business will be protected. And the media will want to have a macro perspective of all that is being done. One document or memo will not address everyone’s interests well and still be succinct. So you need to adapt the information and tailor it for who wants to, or needs to, know what. Also, don’t ignore the media, they can be a powerful spokesperson for you IF you engage them well.

7. Alas there are a lot of so-called “crisis comms experts” giving advice on the web and to you. Ask for their bona fides in crisis comms. Just because they have worked as a marketeer, media person, studied it in school or even worked as a PR person for a few of years, doesn’t mean that they are equipped to lead you through a crisis. It is a very different kettle of fish writing, pitching and organising media stories versus guiding you through a crisis when the building is on fire and/or you’re about to lose your business. Do you want someone who charges at low cost, but has never actually dealt with an actual major crisis, providing strategic advice to you? A misstep could cause unrecoverable damage to your brand or worse, create the need to lay off your staff. Make no mistakes, communications can, and often do, dictate how your organisation comes out on the other side of the crisis.

8. And finally, internal communications is a key weapon in your arsenal of tools to manage this pandemic within your company. Engage your employees, but don’t just keep sending emails after emails. Call them, message them personally, keep the channels open. It is not, and cannot be, one-way communications. There are so many things you can do. And your employees will value you for it.

These are just some of the many things that can be done. From social media, to investor relations, to media engagement and more, lots more. If you need help, get in touch with us!