16 Mar COVID-19 – Spotlight on Crisis Communications
The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as an unprecedented global event that may change many aspects of our lives in the long term. What won’t change, and what this situation has highlighted, is the importance of good communications in times of crisis, and the need to place humanity at the heart of our actions.
How we communicate has changed significantly throughout my career in PR. However, whilst the media we use to communicate might continue to evolve in the future, I predict that what underpins crisis comms – clear, concise, caring and confident messaging – will always remain.
PR teams around the world are working their socks off right now, and whilst large organisations will have plans in place to manage crises, many smaller businesses or charities may be struggling to keep up. Here are some observations that I have made over the last week, along with some of the crisis communications lessons I have learnt in my career:
Don’t expect perfect
Mike Ryan, an Irish doctor working at the World Health Organization, recently said, ‘Speed trumps perfection.’ In a crisis, the pace at which you need to communicate means you won’t get everything right.
You often feel like you are not doing enough or wish you could do better, and when a crisis continues over a number of days or even weeks, it is very tiring and it becomes easy to make mistakes.
Show your true colours
It is during challenging times that a company’s values are most on display. This presents an opportunity for organisations to build their reputation, because how you behave and respond to a situation may well be judged more than the issue itself. There are many examples of this to be inspired by, it’s a case of considering how people are affected, and how your organisation can help.
Speaking honestly, transparently and with empathy, seeking out ways to go above and beyond what is expected – these actions will all help to show your audience what your company is really made of.
Dealing with the present, looking ahead to the future
The coronavirus is showing that it’s quite a challenge to monitor and respond to a fast-changing scenario whilst also anticipating what directions the issue may pivot to next; being disciplined about taking time out from the ‘now’ to anticipate the future is good advice.
We need to give some thought to the ‘new normal’ that can emerge from a crisis. How our customers’ expectations might change or how certain behaviours will shift permanently have to be considered.
Prioritise internal communications
Internal communications are under the spotlight right now, with firms dealing with the impact of COVID-19. Hygiene behaviours, new rules about staff travel or events and office closures all require first-class internal comms. Good communications will also be put to the test if large parts of the workforce need to self-isolate or work from home.
An organisation’s people are its best and most valuable asset. The management team may need to effect behaviour changes, keep up morale or simply transform how teams work together – whatever the objective, talking about the bigger picture and how staff are part of it is a good place to start.
Remember also that your external messaging may be brilliant, but if your internal comms fall down and the message your staff receive is different from or behind your external comms, the crisis could get a lot worse.
Social media is your friend
Use all your social media and digital channels to their full functionality. Films can help you to show empathy, graphics can communicate complex messages and your customer service team can see clearly what consumers need to know.
For organisations who need to communicate externally, careful social listening can help you to shape messages in real time and anticipate what direction the crisis may take next, as well as providing an opportunity for you to share information quickly.
Being authentic and transparent throughout an issue isn’t always easy. But it is the right course of action to take.
The spokesperson role in a crisis is critical to put more humanity into corporate communications, and media training for spokespeople is essential.
Remind your spokespeople that, difficult questions aside, media outlets play an important role in helping to bring a crisis under control rapidly. They will help to disseminate important information to a wide audience, which will help to minimise confusion and help you move on to the rebuild phase more quickly.
Don’t fail to prepare
Identifying risks, and planning communications strategies will help you to quickly when a crisis strikes and the old adage ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’ is perhaps more pertinent now than ever before.
If you need help with crisis or internal communications, please get in touch by emailing email@example.com
Nichole is a CIPR Chartered Public Relations Practitioner and is the only consultant in the Channel Islands with a CIPR Specialist Diploma in Crisis Communications. She has over 25 years’ PR experience, working in the UK, Australia and the Channel Islands. Her career has included in-house and large agency roles, working with a wide variety of clients across the health, retail and financial services sectors.