By Victoria Usher, Founder and CEO at GingerMay PR
We’re in the midst of an extraordinary moment in time where a single occurrence has sparked a global reaction, impacting just about everyone both personally and professionally with incredible speed.
With unprecedented public health and economic measures causing a shockwave for businesses, it’s tempting to close ranks and go into survival mode, staying quiet until the situation improves. But at this time communication is more important than ever. How your business responds to this crisis will have a huge impact on its reputation moving forward, and communicating early, transparently and with authority is essential to maintain credibility. A robust communication plan will ensure your business weathers the storm and comes out in front when the inevitable recovery bounce takes place.
A solid communication strategy
Step one in crisis communications is to establish a crisis response team, a kind of task force to head up your response. Team size will vary by business but it should be kept small to aid rapid decision making. At a minimum you will need representatives from the leadership, human resources, and communications teams, but you may also include people from key functions such as operations, legal or sales.
The team’s command and decision-making structure must be determined immediately, along with an efficient approvals process that supports timely updates. Only members of the crisis response team should issue formal communications, and ideally businesses will appoint one or two key spokespeople. The team should meet regularly to review the situation as it unfolds, and issue regular updates, both internal and external.
As a rule, communications should be concise and easy to understand, although it is essential to explain where information is coming from. Businesses must maintain a consistent voice across all communications, respecting the gravity of the situation but remaining positive and reassuring, giving practical advice where possible. Early communication is vital. Nobody expects you to have all the answers from the outset, but they do expect to hear from you, so
it’s better to be transparent and communicate what you do know even if that means admitting there are things you’re still working on.
Internal communications require a personal touch
Employees and key stakeholders should be first in line for crisis communications. Aside from the fact they deserve to be in the know, it is far easier to communicate externally once everyone within your business understands what is happening and can continue delivering the best possible service to customers.
Written updates should be published regularly via accessible channels such as the company intranet, and if businesses use a communication platform such as Slack a dedicated channel can be created for all Coronavirus related updates. But in times of crisis it is also essential for business leaders to communicate with their employees in person. Just hearing their CEO’s voice, or seeing their face can be reassuring for an anxious workforce. During social distancing leaders can make use of video technologies to live stream announcements and host discussions.
Employees and stakeholders need leaders to be reliable in sharing information. They want to know how the company is responding to the Coronavirus fallout and understand the process behind decision making. Leaders should encourage questions and answer them as fully as possible. As Liam Black, Chair of Big White Wall explained in a recent webinar, business leaders mustn’t duck the difficult conversations and must ensure employees feel heard. Being open about challenges facing the company while focussing on what you are doing about them will inspire confidence and limit the spread of misinformation.
External communications need empathy
Customers and partners need to hear from you, to understand what steps you are taking to reinforce your business and how changes might impact them. Even if it’s somehow still business as usual, customers and partners need to be reassured. The crisis response team should determine the business’s public position on the Coronavirus situation, develop approved messaging that aligns with that position, and establish guidelines for how spokespeople should engage on the topic.
As with internal communications, it’s essential to publish regular public updates in an accessible location such as the company website, providing contact details for further questions. But in addition to general updates, business should also tailor proactive communication to the needs of their customers. What is important to your customers and partners, what is likely to be worrying them and how can you help?
Predicting your customers’ questions, proactively providing the answers and taking action to provide assistance will ensure customers remain loyal as times improve. Many businesses understand the importance of envisaging customer needs and proactively fulfilling them, for instance some banks are temporarily waiving overdraft fees to ease financial worries, while some mobile network providers are automatically dishing out additional data to help people stay in touch during isolation. This is a time for empathy and assistance rather than driving growth; the positive impact on relationships will be worth far more in the long term than a few opportunistic sales right now.
Choosing the channel for crisis communications
The channels businesses use for external communication will depend on who they are communicating with. For major clients or partners, a regular phone or video call is irreplaceable, whereas for others a weekly email may be sufficient.
Social media channels are incredibly effective for opening external dialogue and helping businesses understand their customers’ needs. But businesses must be prepared to respond quickly to any interactions, helping to maintain customer trust and relationships. While it’s not possible to predict all questions, the crisis response team can develop some pre-approved responses and provide guidance on dealing positively with negative comments.
A strong thought-leadership programme
In addition to dealing with communication in the context of the current crisis, businesses also need to look to the future and plan for the recovery bounce. Implementing a robust thought-leadership marketing programme at this time will protect businesses, allowing them to raise their profile and be at the forefront of the industry conversation as we come out the other side.
By publishing thought-leadership articles and conducting research to inform reports or whitepapers, businesses can influence the shape their industry will take post-Coronavirus and become a go-to spokesperson for the sector. Businesses can also publish additional content on their blog as a sort of digital newsroom, a resource for people looking for more information about what the company is doing. And they can offer their spokespeople as thought leaders for virtual industry panels or events, using this time to position the business as a leading voice within influential communities, and ultimately gaining greater traction as the situation improves.
We’re living and working through an unprecedented episode, and everyone is striving to adjust. A solid crisis communications and thought leadership strategy will be a game changer for businesses during the Coronavirus chapter, putting them in a strong position for the recovery that is on its way.