The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted global society on a near-unprecedented scale. Entire sectors and industries are at a standstill, as the majority of the world’s population is currently experiencing some form of lockdown or mandatory social distancing.
These are uncertain times. People around the world are looking for answers, and this is reflected in what they enter into search engines. Trending searches include a range of queries reflecting public anxiety, as millions of people around the world face the looming prospect of an economic and human disaster.
If you’re a business owner, this is a make-or-break time. Not just in economic terms, but also in terms of your reputation, public opinion, and what life will be like once the pandemic has settled. How you communicated and implemented your crisis management plan will be remembered, and will set the tone for how you will be perceived after these difficult months.
During this time, you will likely have to communicate messages you’d rather avoid. Whether it’s to your employees, the public, investors, or other stakeholders, it’s unavoidable that the COVID-19 situation will impact you in some way.
Seven tips for handling crisis communication well
1) Stay calm
For many people, the immediate response to a crisis is to let their emotions get the better of them. This is reflected in supermarkets, as people fight over the last roll of toilet paper, and in a company’s internal and external communications. This is not the time to send a quick tweet or hold an impromptu staff meeting before considering what you’re about to say. Plan your message before delivering it.
2) Know your audience
Keep in mind that ‘staying calm’ is not the end goal; your end goal is to effectively deliver a message that may be difficult to hear for many people. This message will be much better received if you use compassion and reason to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What are they thinking? What insecurities of theirs can you try to ease? Are they looking for an apology, or a solution? By tailoring your message to their needs, you will automatically reduce friction and discontent.
3) Act decisively
Prevention beats a cure. One of the best ways to reduce or even avoid potential conflict is by responding quickly. There’s no need to come up with a ten-point action plan at the first hint of trouble, but do send a proactive signal to let everyone know you’re handling the situation. Don’t let tensions boil over until it’s too late, and don’t let uncertainty fester into a hostile relationship. This is the time to demonstrate leadership.
4) Stay truthful
Sometimes it can be tempting to tell people what they want to hear. Humans are social creatures. We like being popular. But if you ask anybody if they’d rather be told a lie or the truth, most people would pick the latter – especially if it’s about their job security. Don’t promise that there won’t be lay-offs if you can’t guarantee this. Do tell people you will do your utmost to avoid it. Use concrete examples based in fact.
5) Be prepared
Plan for the worst. If you don’t already have a series of statements prepared to use during times of crisis, this will be a learning experience for you. Life happens, and things can go wrong.
While you can’t look into a crystal ball to see what the future holds, you can prepare a series of blanket statements and quotes to help you act swiftly when disaster strikes. Aim for quick and easy quotes that you can use before, during, and after the event. Here are three specific crisis communication examples:
“We are aware of the situation and are closely monitoring the events as they unfold. Please rest assured that we’re on the case, and will let you know as soon as more information becomes available.“
“Our thoughts are with everyone during this difficult time. We are doing our utmost to ensure the best possible outcome for all of us, and will continue to work towards a solution.“
“Thank you for your ongoing consideration and help. While this has been an extremely challenging situation for all of us, we’re proud to come out of this stronger and more united.“
6) Train your spokespeople
This will always depend on a range of factors – how big your company is, what sector you’re in, geographical proximity, and of course the circumstances leading up to the crisis event. One thing is for sure: you need someone who is confident and capable of delivering the most important messages. Someone who is excellent at commanding a boardroom might wilt when faced with difficult online questions during a digital presentation. A strong written communicator may struggle when faced with cameras. Make sure you designate roles, and play to your strengths.
7) Remain consistent
When you speak, you want people to listen. Your word should be taken as the truth. This will generally be the case if you follow the above points, but the tricky thing is to ensure that your message stays consistent throughout the entire process. If you say one thing and your partner says another, who should stakeholders believe? What happens when two employees talk to each other, and find out their managers told them different things? Make sure you plan a coherent crisis management strategy and keep anyone who will be delivering a message on the same page.
In short, when executing or communicating your crisis management plan:
* Stay calm
* Know your audience
* Act decisively
* Stay truthful
* Be prepared
* Train your spokespeople
* Remain consistent
Crisis communication examples
The current pandemic has led to many different responses. Companies and individuals who responded poorly to the crisis, by taking economic advantage of employees or by committing other morally dubious acts in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, are being publicly vilified and blacklisted.
It should be fairly obvious that companies face significant scrutiny for how they act under crisis – but the reverse is also true. Challenging or troubling times are also the best possible opportunity to not only do the right thing, but be seen and recognised for doing the right thing. It would be cynical to suggest do-goodery purely for the sake of optics, but if popularity and profit come as a natural repercussion of a good act, it’d be foolish not to embrace them.
Below you’ll find two great crisis communication examples. One is from a company that successfully identified opportunities during times of crisis, and found a way to use content and communication to improve their brand perception as well as the lives of others during a difficult period. The other example shows how clear and effective communication can produce unparalleled results, and inspire people to overcome difficult times together.
Example #1: Sweetening up the crowd
The below image is taken directly from Google Trends, and shows a huge increase in the amount of searches for Krispy Kreme donuts.
Why? It’s not just because they’re delicious. Krispy Kreme announced that they will be giving a dozen donuts to certified healthcare personnel every Monday as a token of their appreciation during the current coronavirus crisis. While you can invest thousands into SEO optimization, PPC campaigns, or expensive marketing, sometimes the best way to get 50,000 people talking about you is simply by making the world a slightly brighter place.
How did Krispy Kreme announce their message to the world? A simple, well-written press release that announced their intentions. One part that stood out to me was the below:
“Like everyone in these times, we’re anxious. We’re concerned. We’re also all in this together. Thank you, healthcare workers and everyone supporting them, including our Krispy Kremers, who make a personal commitment every day to share joy.”
The above press release (which I recommend reading in full) is a perfect example of calm, empathetic, and decisive action. It’s also extremely on-brand, and managed to make the company’s product become one of the fastest-trending searches in the world. Next time you’re trying to identify what content you should be putting out during a crisis, it’s worth remembering the sweet success of Krispy Kreme.
Example #2: Be more like Jacinda Ardern
Governments around the world are being criticised for their slow, ineffective, and at times dangerously negligent approach to the novel coronavirus. It’s rare to see compliments being shared around – but New Zealand’s Prime Minister is being praised from both sides of the political spectrum for her leadership.
The article linked above goes into several points which you’ve read about earlier. At first, the New Zealand government was among many being criticised for responding slowly (see: “Act decisively”), but Ardern’s address to the nation was clear, empathetic, and came right before her government’s perceived inaction began to create serious friction.
“Kiwis, go home.” The message was simple and explained with reason, empathy, and confidence.
“The worst-case scenario is simply intolerable, it would represent the greatest loss of New Zealanders’ lives in our history, and I will not take that chance.”
“I say to all New Zealanders: the government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect all of us. Kiwis – go home.”
By communicating her message truthfully and passionately, by demonstrating empathy and reason, and by being confident in delivering her message, the Prime Minister of New Zealand received substantial public buy-in for a ‘lockdown’ situation unprecedented in the nation.
While we can’t all speak with the confidence of a world leader, it pays to dissect the elements of her speech that lead to her success in managing critical situations.
Using the seven guidelines listed above, as well as learning from these two examples of effective and positive crisis communication, will help companies successfully get through what may well be the most difficult economic circumstances they’ve ever found themselves in.
Whether you’re reading this article in the middle of the current COVID-19 outbreak or during a different crisis, remember to stay calm. Do everything in your power to guarantee the best possible outcomes, both for yourself and for others, and use the above information to effectively communicate your efforts to the world. For any specific questions or more detailed discussion, please feel free to contact me.