How to communicate in turbulent times
A five-step plan to effective crisis communication
If there is one positive outcome from the challenges presented by the spread of the coronavirus, it is the heightened importance we have as communications leaders to develop the message and get it out quickly.
We have created five steps to consider for managing communications during a crisis.
These steps, which we have called DRIVE, represent the actions needed at each phase of the process. Specifically, they refer to Determine (audience), Refine (messaging), Inform (constituencies), Values (focus) and Evaluate (impact). We are recommending that we, as a communications community, DRIVE the communications instead of letting the issue define how we respond.
Here’s what we suggest at each step of the process. This approach reflects much of what we are doing for clients now.
Step one: determine who needs to know what
As people scramble to make sense of the world around them, determining who needs to know what is so often lost, despite it often being common sense. The first audience every organisation should reach out to is its employees. Regularly communicating with staff through an upheaval can put them at ease, while also ensuring that critical business needs are still addressed. This is where having a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is paramount. Companies believe they will never use these plans, but if they do, they will be used sparingly. They are like having a good insurance policy. Effective BCPs do a few things:
- Lean on technology – Utilise some form of technology platform to manage day-to-day communications. These can be internal or external platforms, whichever best allows your company to consistently and clearly communicate with staff and whichever has the easiest barrier of entry for employees to check in and keep up, especially for larger organisations.
- Demonstrate your value proposition to your staff – There is no better time than a critical issue to “show not tell” how important your staff are to your organisation. Staff will judge the company and management on the steps you take to ensure their safety. We have witnessed some companies going the extra distance by providing additional insurance, offering emotional support hotlines, and even providing physician consultancy over the phone. Externally, many companies see crises as a time to pump up, expand, or introduce corporate social responsibility initiatives. This can be valuable. However, it’s always good to ensure that what you’re doing for people outside your four walls is something you’ve ensured for your staff, as well.
- Include the whole organisation and tweak on the go – Throughout the last few weeks, many companies have been tweaking their BCPs, making sure teams are aligned. We have found the best BCPs have an identified leader who coordinates the company’s response and includes HR, communications, marketing, finance, legal and technology in the decision making. This person is not the CEO but is closely linked to the CEO and keeps abreast of the company’s response and ongoing business needs.
Of course, communication with customers is also critical. Companies use technology to communicate with staff during a crisis; they should use it when interacting with customers, too. Whether it’s to arrange non-contact meetings or to address customer concerns from afar rather than up close, it helps knowing which technology can be best deployed in a given situation. In times of crisis, being present with your customers is crucial. It’s your chance to show them that you truly care about them and are operating in the same reality as they are. You’re not isolated, caring only about profit while they worry about their safety and the world around them.
Government is another important stakeholder. We have had many clients – both domestic and international – demonstrate their citizenship through offers of monetary, product, and even personnel support. These moves go a long way towards showing that a company or brand takes its role in a larger culture and society seriously.
Step two: refine your messaging
Once you know who you need to communicate with and what the desired outcomes are, your focus can shift to messaging. Ideally, you want to communicate your actions while avoiding any controversial or political hurdles. In a situation such as COVID-19, you don’t want to fuel panic, but you do want to take the necessary actions to be prudent. British Airways was very careful in how it communicated its temporary cessation of flights to China.
It is the role of the communicator to understand the sensitivities around communicating what is needed, necessary, and responsible, and to manage all risks involved in external communications.
Step three: inform your constituencies
Nothing builds trust throughout an issue or crisis better than a steady flow of responsible information that keeps everyone involved. Companies need to stay close to all aspects of the response to a crisis, and make sure they are relaying the most recent and relevant information to all their stakeholders. To stay in front of the many questions and concerns that stakeholders will have, it’s important to establish a channel to communicate indirectly and employ a cadenced approach to providing updates.
We have been helping with this. Many clients stay close to all aspects of the response taking place in China and elsewhere, as well as documenting what companies are doing about it. This is helping leadership teams make decisions on what is necessary for their companies.
Step four: focus on the values
None of us welcomes a crisis. But there is no better time to demonstrate what you stand for as a company. What are the values that define you? And if those values don’t shine through at this time, are they really indicative of how your company operates and its purpose in the world? Crises can represent a “show not tell” moment for your corporate reputation. We’ve seen companies like Intel, the NBA, Shiseido and Carlyle step up to provide financial support along with medical and other supplies during this crisis.
Step five: evaluate throughout the process
Communicating during issues and crises is a fluid process. The final step is to evaluate how you’re doing through surveys, engagement reviews and responses, and actual endorsements by key constituencies. Be guided by this one critical question: “Have the steps you have taken demonstrably improved your standing as an organisation in your stakeholders’ eyes?”
If the answer is anything but yes, that doesn’t mean that everything you’ve done up until now has been wrong or totally useless. It just requires taking a holistic look at the previous steps and iterating or going back to make sure you’ve developed the right communications and established the correct channels to communicate them, and that they have been guided by the true values of the organisation.
Following these steps will not only help your organisation manage a crisis, it will also help establish it as proactively DRIVING the agenda.
19 March 2020
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