Communicating effectively through the crisis

Anu Gupta
The pandemic has heightened the importance of communication. But is there a playbook for how businesses should communicate at a time like this?
Director at Asia PR Werkz

The pandemic has heightened the importance of communication. But is there a playbook for how businesses should communicate at a time like this?

There can never be one set way to tackle crisis communication, because what is effective for one crisis may never work in another.

The ongoing pandemic has been all pervasive – cutting across all aspects of life and impacting all businesses, societies and governments. Many companies are probably facing their first ever public relations crisis (and most startups certainly are), making it even more unnerving and challenging for them.

It is perhaps for the first time in history that hundreds of millions of people have been in lockdown and travel has been restricted to the extent it has. The markets have responded unkindly as the spread of the virus has continued unabated.

This is a challenging time for entrepreneurs and businesses alike. In issues and crisis management, we often hear the saying: “You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control what you do about it.”

As marketers and communicators, what we can control is how we communicate both internally and externally during crises. This can go a long way in maintaining and even enhancing reputations.

React fast

Speed is key during any crisis. In todays’ fast-paced 24-hour news cycle, any post-crisis lag in communication can be detrimental to a business. It is important to take your stand, form your strategy and move fast.

Keep it simple, and place the ongoing crisis and issue properly in a greater context. What does it mean for globalisation, economic growth and more?

For example, layoffs have probably been the most common crisis matter for most companies. During a time like this, it’s a step many firms have had to take. But how effectively can this be communicated? Is the media your only target segment? The answer lies in communicating with both your internal and external audience, because an internal audience is as crucial. They must both be done simultaneously.

Keep it simple, and place the ongoing crisis and issue properly in a greater context. What does it mean for globalisation, economic growth and more – and how does that play out as the world works to get through the crisis together? It is no longer just about your firm.

Tone is key

It is more important now than ever before that the message strikes the right tone for the situation. Strike that balance between humour and seriousness, depending on the content and channel of communication. By accepting the gravity of the crisis we’re facing, a company has an opportunity to calm worries and be a voice of reason. As a leader, you need to be authentic, honest, forthright and focused.

It is also okay to not have all the answers right away, as nobody knows what will happen a year, a month or even a week down the line. But don’t just share the information with your employees – instead, speak to your industry. That means not only speaking about how the pandemic has impacted your business, but how it has impacted your industry as a whole. For example, a leading player in the travel sector should speak about the implications of COVID-19 on the industry rather than just on a brand.

Public relations teams have the power to add a human element to crisis response, bringing warmth and understanding to what may otherwise seem like a sprawling, faceless corporation.

By accepting the gravity of the crisis we’re facing, a company has an opportunity to calm worries and be a voice of reason. As a leader, you need to be authentic, honest, forthright and focused.

When communicating with stakeholders and responding to comments, questions or complaints, the team should always strive to be positive, friendly and warm. The goal should be to make the customer, partner or media feel they are getting personal attention from a real person.

Focus on facts

During a crisis, there is an increased need to ensure the information shared is current and based on facts. Rumours run rampant, and misinformation and false narratives can spread fast. Always share content from reliable sources and be transparent about where you are getting your information from.

This is particularly important on social media – where much information is unverified or based on hearsay and opinion.

This piece aims to make people think twice before sharing and reposting myths about COVID19. Image created by Ruth Burrows. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19. Image taken from Unsplash.

Consistent messaging

Even in the midst of a crisis, all communication must stay consistent. This will help reassure all stakeholders. One way to ensure that messaging stays consistent is to gain pre-approvals on all crisis communications, including press releases, social media posts, website updates and other relevant documents or statements. It is best to plan and face the crisis, and for that preparation is key.

The first step is to draft documents for each potential emergency situation, with as many specifics as possible. The next step is to route them to all relevant stakeholders for approval.

Once a crisis hits, the team can then adapt these key messages to the specific situation and response. However, the core of the content will already be written and approved, which can save untold amounts of time. This also helps to maintain the consistency of spoken messaging, such as executive interviews or press conferences and customer service phone calls.

Rumours run rampant, and misinformation and false narratives can spread fast. Always share content from reliable sources and be transparent about where you are getting your information from.

It is easy for a customer, partner or member of the press to misunderstand or misinterpret a spoken statement. Training spokespeople to stay on message can help preserve the overall tone of the crisis response. With this type of preparation, your team can help ensure that the overall organisation is ‘saying’ exactly what it should be.

But also remember that in this day and age, trying to hide information can backfire.

Use technology effectively  

Recognise the role of technology today and how it can be used effectively in every communication exercise. People may be spending more time online but that doesn’t mean you need to put out more content for your clients with your crisis communication plan. 

Additionally, there is understandably more fear among people and they are having a difficult time. This is when it’s important to speak with a tone of empathy across all channels – be it your firm’s social media, emails to employees or partners, or even statements to media.

Separately, one should discourage messaging channels like email that people use as part of their personal communication. Messaging that competes with their chosen news, family and personal updates isn’t likely to be welcomed or well received.

Not etched in stone

While every crisis is unique and comes with its own set of challenges, it is important to appreciate that there is no set formula to overcome such situations.

Every organisation and business will embark on its own journey to recover from this crisis, and each journey will be unique – it could very well become a case study for an Ivy League B-School a year from now.

What is important is to face the crisis, take a step back and focus on the bigger picture, be honest, authentic and take your team into confidence.  

What I heard a client recently say sums it up: “Never let a crisis go to waste”.

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Director at Asia PR Werkz

Anu Gupta is Director (Startups & Global Markets) at Asia PR Werkz, a Singapore-based leading local public relations firm.

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