5 Steps to Communicating in a Crisis

3 min read

The ground underneath many businesses and organizations is shifting daily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With it comes new challenges (and opportunities) for communicating with staff, customers, stakeholders and the public.

Even those of us with crisis communications experience are being thrown curveballs as social media channels are flooded, the media landscape is congested and people are suffering from information overload.

It can be hard to get your voice heard above the noise.

Here are some crisis communications tips.

1. Stop shouting

Be clear on what information you need to share, who needs to receive it, and what is the best way to reach that audience. There’s a good chance not everybody needs to hear what you’re saying. Now, more than ever, you need to drill down on who you are taking to and determine the best way they receive information.

This means focusing on your audience needs, not yours.

Instead of just posting something on your website or social media channels, and walking away, you need to look at targeted communications tools.

If you are sharing information with your employees, send emails with strong subject lines, concise text and a clear call to action (even if it’s look for more information to come). You may also want to follow up with phone calls (remember the phone?) to your managers to ensure they share the information with their teams.

2. Be empathic

In all of your communications, in person and online, make sure you lead with empathy. Acknowledge the struggles people are facing – emotionally, financially, mentally and with their health.

This is a new reality for all of us. Many are struggling to get through the day. By being empathic, people will appreciate that you care about them, or at least understand the challenges they face.

Never start any communications with – here is today’s update.

Every morning I watch Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau give his daily update. And every day his first message is one of empathy. Empathy for the people who have lost loved ones. Empathy for workers who are no longer receiving an income. Empathy for children who can’t play with their friends and have lost the routine of going to school. Empathy for caregivers who are supporting aging parents while working from home and caring for children.

I appreciate that he understands the struggles Canadians are facing. This allows me to get beyond, does he really care, and truly tune in and listen to what he has to say.

3. Don’t be tone deaf

This is my biggest pet peeve – companies who send me emails or have social media posts that are out of sync with our current reality.

Where it once (might have) been okay to send weekly emails about the latest sale, with so many people not working, this can seem callous. Yes, I understand businesses still need to sell goods. But it’s important that while selling you recognize the financial limitations of your customers.

I’ve seen a huge growth in the buy local movement. Small businesses are reminding the community that they are the people who sponsor sports teams, donate to raffles and live in the community. As they post sales, they ask people to support local businesses so they can stay afloat and continue supporting the community when life returns to (somewhat) normal.

4. Let go of perfection

As I help a few organizations navigate communicating during COVID-19, my key point is – this is not the time for perfection. Don’t wait until you’ve created the perfect message to share some tough news. People would rather hear what you have to say and receive timely updates (especially related to impacts from COVID-19) than read a perfectly written piece of prose.

I’m a big fan of bullet points during a crisis. Why? Because our ability to process information is impacted when we’re under stress.

Bullets help people see the key information, giving them permission to glaze over the materials (which I promise you they are doing).

5. Be present

Once you’ve determined who are your key stakeholders (ex. staff, customers, clients, partnering organizations), you need to keep the communications channels open. These should be the regular ways you normally interact with them. Now is not the time to introduce new channels.

If you have a strong public presence (like a school or long-term care facility) you need to be communicating 2-3 times per week. While this may seem like a lot, your audience has a vested interest in what you have to say and the information you are providing.

For organizations with less of a presence, I would still recommend weekly updates to your core audiences (especially staff). Start with empathy, then let them know what’s happened since the last update, what information you want them to know (ex. health and safety), supports available (if applicable) and where they can go to get more information.

And for your business owners, be strategic about how and when you communicate. For your social media posts, make sure you follow the 80/20 rule (80% of your posts are educational or entertainment and 20% sales). You still want to have a presence with you customers, but now is not the time to sell, sell, sell.

Maybe share some photos of your team working from home to remind your customers you employ real people who are also impacted. Talk about how you are being innovate to support customers. For example, a local toy store created customized Easter baskets for kids, with free home delivery. Not only were they making kids happy, reducing stress from parents having to navigate Easter with store closures, but they were also generating a much needed income.

We don’t know how long the social isolation and economic impacts of COVID-19. But I expect we will be operating in crisis communications mode for a few months.

How are you continuing to add value or make a personal connection with your core audiences and/or customers? Are you recognizing their needs, or just focusing on what information you want to share? How we will you foster and nourish these relationships in the coming weeks and months?

Cynthia Lockrey Cynthia Lockrey is a storyteller and motivator. She is passionate about helping people find their voice so they can share their knowledge, stories and BE HEARD! Having started her career as a newspaper editor, she understands the elements that make up a good story, and where the story gets lost in the telling. When she jumped into public relations, she brought with her all the lessons learned and insights from working in the media. It is these insights, and experience gained over 20+ working in PR, that she’s passionate about sharing. Cynthia is skilled at breaking down communications fundamentals into bite size and easy to implement pieces. She does this in her blogging, communications consulting, training and speaking. She is also the author of two books.

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