Is your crisis communications plan in place and up to date?

March 11, 2020, was the day Coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Since then, the number of organisations making major structural decisions to protect their workforces and financial stability has escalated dramatically. When we make fundamental changes to the way people work and how services and products will be delivered, the resulting uncertainty requires a commensurate escalation in the communications, both internally and externally, of the business. How businesses communicate with their employees, customers and wider industry must be approached strategically, transparently and, above all with empathy, while at all times protecting one of the most important elements of any organisation – its reputation.

How you handle your communications during a crisis or turbulent time not only goes a long way to contributing towards the wellbeing of your employees and suppliers but can also be a decisive factor in whether your company survives and flourishes once the situation abates. Living in a digital age, we have never been better equipped to deal with such a crisis, with remote working and online communications allowing us to remain more connected to our crucial network and deliver messages to our customers, team and stakeholders with ease.

Many but not all companies have crisis communications plans in place, but many are in dire need of an update. As a result, we have been dealing heavily with our clients’ crisis communications in recent weeks, and this process helps build perspective and some comfort in taking control of the communications plan and the way organisations are perceived by their employees, customers and stakeholders.

The 3E approach is commonly used when considering the messaging to use while building crisis communications plans:

  • Empathise with your audience, demonstrating understanding, pragmatic optimism and trust in working together to get through the turbulent period
  • Engage internally and externally, building confidence by supporting each other and pulling together towards a shared goal
  • Educate on the situation regarding the organisation’s activities and plans – sticking to only the details you are in a position to impart information on – leaving scientific information to the respective experts

Considering the CHAT pillars of crisis communications plans can assist in determining the tone of voice to use throughout your communications:

  • Consistency – deciding
    upon your position and sticking to it
  • Honesty – never tell
    lies, or you will lose all credibility for ever and tarnish your reputation
  • Accountability – take
    ownership of your messaging and ensure the entire organisation is using the
    same messages
  • Transparency – once you
    have decided what can be made public, ensure it is disseminated to your team,
    so you can speak with one true voice

It’s crucial for organisations to do all they can to keep their team, customers and suppliers together during testing times, so as to lose as little ground as possible and push on when the green light is switched back on and the competition picks up at a pace.

Your two most important audiences are your team and your customers. When regular working life is impossible, communications must happen much more often and with more purpose and thought behind them. All stakeholders are waiting for information, and it is better to be upfront. In many cases, Holding and If-asked statements may need to be put in place for potentially controversial situations, particularly where the media might get involved.

Internally: Communicate about risks and challenges facing the
company. Explain where decision-making processes are at,
challenges and opportunities coming up and what is being planned to deal with
them. Deliver regular, concise and sympathetic updates and
utilise video and the personal touch whenever possible, making your leaders the
relatable human face of the organisation.  

Customers: Not all
companies struggle during times of turbulence, particularly if they deliver a
product or service that is more in demand during a crisis. In many cases, communicating your measures to handle the
crisis is a positive
way to help continue and build your customer and target-audience relationship.

Social media has given you the
power to use your hard-earned social media following to impart your
communications over this period. You have spent time and money building a
following and now is the time the results of your efforts can come to the fore,
with most organisations able to communicate to their network directly over
their social channels.

Many organisations create newsletters and have built email databases, both internal and external, which are extremely useful for communicating to an opted-in audience.

Make your
message empathetic and engaging, while refraining from communicating with
authority on topics not within your realm of specialism. It is important to use
professionals when preparing social content plans for your crisis
communications strategy and have this content approved at the appropriate level
if there are any potential considerations regarding brand reputation.

Media will quite rightly follow the
news agenda and, during a crisis such as COVID-19, it’s important to adapt your
messaging accordingly – both to explore new opportunities and to be prepared
for any negative situations related to the situation arising.

  1. A Crisis Team and communications hierarchy must be established – this is normally the leadership team and a PR agency or internal PR specialist
  2. The communications flow must be mapped out for all potential scenarios
  3. There should be one point of contact for media
  4. One person from the organisation must be responsible for approving information released both proactively and reactively to the media
  5. Different types of statements should be prepared
  6. Information should be shared internally – as it happens
  7. Organisations must never knee-jerk react to even seemingly harmless media enquiries during these periods and must follow the protocols in place

Run through a difficult crisis communications scenario – for example, an employee contracts COVID-19 and dies from the disease or the organisation is somehow found culpable for the spread of the disease. Use your crisis communications consultant to act out the potential consequences of this happening and this will help you streamline and prepare for the situation should it ever occur in real life. It will also help you to prepare social posts, holding statements and templates. What would you do if Reuters picked up a story that was potentially devastating to your organisation at 3am on Saturday morning and ran with the story without comment because there was no one around? How much worse would it be if Bloomberg was also on the scene? If you knew there was a chance of this happening, you should have had a system in place ready to respond 24/7.

10-point crisis communications strategy checklist:

  1. Pull together your
    leadership team for communications
  2. Get started on your
    strategy or update it now
  3. Decide on your
  4. Determine your tone
    of voice
  5. Address internal and
    external communications
  6. Establish your social
    media content plan
  7. Explore other
    communications channels
  8. Spend time on your
    media plan
  9. Act out a tough
  10. Stay positive and be
    ready to come out the other side competitively

COVID-19 is a new crisis that all
organisations are adjusting to in some way or another. During these uncertain
times, your communications strategy should be one of your main priorities. Be
proactive to ensure employees, customers and other
stakeholders are adequately informed and working together
with you during this challenging period, supporting each other and remaining
stronger together. While the pandemic may pass after a number of weeks or
months, this exercise will help establish stronger bonds and fortify your
organisation from a communication perspective for years to come. Crises end and life goes on. It’s how you deal with it now
that could make the difference to how strongly you emerge on the other side
against the competition.

Ian Hainey is a best-selling author and CEO of PR and marketing agency, Integrated Holistic Communications (iHC) and can be reached at 

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