COVID-19 and Your Response: 5 Lessons From Our Crisis Communications Playbook
I hope you are reading this post from a place of health and safety. In these uncertain times, we’re all feeling anxious and wondering how to communicate (or even whether to communicate) with stakeholders. By now, we’ve all heard the news about businesses around the world shutting their doors, volatile markets, social distancing, and flattening the curve.
The threat from the new Coronavirus is really three threats in one: the threat of the disease spreading, the threat from a looming oil price war, and the threat of a global recession. While no one can claim to have all of the answers right now, it’s fair to say that investors, clients, and your team are expecting you to keep the lines of communication open.
In light of this crisis, it makes sense to revisit our previous blog articles about crisis communications and the lessons we learned when cooler heads prevailed.
1. Stick to your crisis communications strategy.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know how often we discuss developing a crisis communications strategy for moments like these. Hopefully, you have a strategy in place. It may not be adequate, since no one predicted a crisis of this magnitude and we still don’t know how deeply it will cut. Nonetheless, use what you have, evolve as necessary (and it will be necessary), and note the weak points for future work.
Get comfortable with the idea that you’ll be in crisis mode for weeks or months at a minimum. Prepare your team to continue to iterate your strategy as new information becomes available. When you need to keep on walking through the fire, here are some tips:
- Focus on transparency and the truth.
- Work closely with your team to identify solutions.
- Do NOT stop communicating both internally and externally.
- Share your 360-degree strategy as it evolves.
2. Make sure to communicate with your internal team.
In addition to falling back on your strategy, focus on communicating with your team. First, approach all internal communications with a sense of empathy. Keep in mind that as concerned as you are about your firm and what this crisis means for future operations, your team is as worried about the firm, their families, and their own livelihoods. They need your strong leadership now more than ever.
Follow the 5 G’s of walking through fire without getting burned:
- Get to ground truth: You don’t know all the relevant facts, but be transparent about what you do know. Your team will appreciate you leveling with them, even if the truth is painful to hear.
- Gather your team: Huddle together (over Zoom, of course) and listen to what your team has to say. Remember, you’re all in this together.
- Give employees the support they need: Your employees on the frontlines of dealing with customers, clients, or investors during this crisis need to know you have their backs. Answer their questions, give them some talking points, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want people outside of the firm to hear.
- Go on the offensive: Now is not the time to hide. Be accessible and proactive in a way that feels authentic to your brand.
- Grant trust: You’ve trained your team well. Now, trust their instincts and work with them to come up with solutions one challenge at a time.
3. Assess the damage and keep the data close.
The ultimate goal of crisis communication is to control your narrative and provide honest, transparent updates about your organization. Work with those within the firm who can analyze the data and provide you with a clear(er) picture. This way, your communications will be informed by what you know. Once you have a clear picture of the damage, you can tell your story.
Now is also the time to consider your extended community. Consider every resource you can think of that may help you get through this crisis:
- Reach out to traditional media outlets: If you have contacts in the news media, and if appropriate, reach out to let them know you are available for a conversation or interview.
- Talk to your PR team: PR teams are designed to offer language for crisis communications. It may be tempting to be reactive and fire off a tweet storm, but you must resist this urge.
- Seek legal counsel: Make a point of engaging with those who know your industry and can offer an outside perspective.
- Identify and speak to key stakeholders: Ensure that your message is consistent and cognizant of what your stakeholders are hearing from public outlets. Be ready to combat any misinformation in a prudent manner.
4. Get through this crisis, yes, but take note of the lessons along the way.
After the economic crisis of 2008, many companies in the financial sector, especially, were motivated to develop crisis communications strategies. Since then, however, many have become complacent and they’re paying the price now.
All we can do is take an honest look at where we are now, hunker down, and get through this crisis. But along the way, make sure you take note of big lessons learned. On the other side of this, you want to be able to take a long hard look at your crisis response and come up with a solid plan for dealing with the next one. Remember, if you don’t figure out how to control the crisis, the crisis will control you.
Consider the following tips for the future:
- If you’re having supply chain issues, think about how to diversify your supply chain.
- If you’re scrambling to help your employees figure out how to work from home, make sure a training program is included in the employee onboarding process.
- If clients are canceling contracts, consider whether you can add a postponement clause into those contracts.
5. Do NOT over-promise.
When we’re not in crisis mode, we understand one principle of successful business is to under-promise and over-deliver. But during a crisis, we can go into fight or flight mode and in this heightened state of anxiety, it’s all too easy to make promises we can’t keep. Again, you’ll want to avoid this mistake at all costs.
For example, the travel industry has been hit especially hard at this time. But over-promising would only increase anger and anxiety for customers. Here’s a quote from an email from Tucker Moodey, President of Expedia,
“For those traveling now and with upcoming travel bookings, our teams are working around the clock to provide everyone the support they need. We are rapidly increasing the availability of travel advisors, enhancing our self-service options, and developing new automated ways for travelers to better manage their reservations. Our focus is helping travelers with immediate trips, and these improvements will allow all our customers to travel more confidently in the future.”
Notice how this paragraph focuses on what actions Expedia is taking, their strategy, and where their focus is in trying to make things as right as possible for their customers. Were they instead to promise that everything will be fine by the busy summer travel season—a promise they certainly can’t guarantee now—they would likely do more damage to their brand in these already turbulent times.
Our team at Audacia Strategies wishes you, your family, and your firm all the best. We are with you in weathering this period, holding our loved ones close, and looking out for our community. These are tough times and we wish a crisis communications plan weren’t a necessity for so many U.S. businesses and firms. We are here to answer any of your questions about corporate communications and investor relations. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Photo credit: langstrup