Communication is essential when a crisis hits. In an ideal world, you go to your crisis communication plan and begin rolling it out. But we don’t live in an ideal world. The speed and wide-ranging impact of the coronavirus pandemic has caught most organisations off guard. Even the best laid plans can need professional crisis communication support to manage the scale of communication required across the many varied communication channels, while for example dealing with an unprecedented amount of disinformation.
We talked to 4C Strategies Senior Consultant, Helena Söderblom, about communicating in a time of crisis, based on over ten years of crisis communication experience and operative work supporting clients’ response to COVID-19.
Senior Consultant at 4C Strategies, specializing in assisting businesses and the public sector with crisis communication.
We all face incredible challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, challenges that will continue for many months ahead. How we communicate during this time will have an enormous short and long-term impact on our staff, suppliers, customers and constituents. Here are my six tips for effective crisis communication.
1) Practice, practice, practice. You don’t know what the next crisis will entail but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare. Of course, this is easier if a crisis has happened previously or it’s one that is on your radar such as a natural disaster. However, the more prepared your crisis management and communications teams are, the better they will handle a crisis.
The best way to do this is by practicing communication in different crisis scenarios and making sure everybody knows their responsibilities. This includes:
- providing media training to those responsible for addressing the media
- ensuring you have emergency contact information for all key stakeholders
- developing primary messages and strategic narratives
- tailoring messaging for different channels – from official websites and social media channels to trusted journalists.
As a case in point, prior to the pandemic several municipalities, cities and regions were faced with supply issues of single-use goods, such as gloves, aprons and test kits at their healthcare facilities, when switching suppliers. The lessons learned in communicating this and from fielding questions and accusations from the press and healthcare facilities proved extremely helpful when Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) levels have been low in the pandemic.
2) Use proven communication tools. Your crisis communication strategy should include the use of proven tools that fit your organisation and / or industry. In my experience, developing a series of Q & A’s for different crisis situations is invaluable. To do this you need to ask yourself:
- Where are our vulnerabilities?
- What has the biggest impact on society?
- What do different stakeholders want and expect to be briefed on?
- What media coverage can we expect and how can we best meet this?
Typical Q & A focus areas for cities during the coronavirus epidemic include:
- school closures / mandatory attendance
- COVID-19 cases recovery and death numbers
- restriction easing
- unemployment figures and back to work plans
With Sweden’s Emergency Services, for example, the ten most common Q & A focus areas are constantly updated. These included dispatch times for emergency vehicles and phone response times, among others.
Other common communication tools include crisis logs, situational reports and target group analysis. It also pays off to use the four-eyes principle before publishing any communications (see tip 4).
3) Look around you. You will never be the only one communicating about a crisis, even if your organization is at the centre of it. A data leak may come from your company, but lots of people are impacted and many media organisations and individuals want to report or comment about it. The same applies for a regional forest fire, contamination of a food chain, or a full-blown epidemic.
Throughout any crisis, it’s essential to monitor what is being communicated around you and about you. This means monitoring many different media and social media channels, something that is best done collaboratively where possible across your ecosystem. Not only do you have to monitor trusted sources in a crisis, information influence and fake news tend to grow exponentially, as antagonists look to expose the situation by attacking an organisation’s reputation. You can read more on how we’re helping organizations counter information influence here.
Monitoring a crisis can be overwhelming which is why it’s a job best shared. With customers, we hold regular debriefings to discuss what everybody from the crisis management team has read or heard and decide how or if we should act on this information.
4) Communicate internally first. Nobody wants to hear news about their organization from a third-party – especially whilst in the middle of a crisis – therefore communicating with employees first is a good rule of thumb. This also provides an extra layer of fact checking. Somebody may spot old or invalid data in a media briefing, question the reliability of a source in a press release, or simply spot a typo in a social media post.
The message you are communicating, and the type of crisis being faced, will define the size of the internal group you share communication with prior to release. If it’s company-wide redundancies, the entire company should be informed before going public. If it’s a lack of PPE equipment at a hospital or proposed changes to lockdown restrictions, the circle will be smaller, which also applies if the information is extremely sensitive or if the timing of communication is absolutely crucial.
5) Know your boundaries and remain true to your values. When communicating externally it’s important to be transparent, but you should also know where the boundaries are. Within every organization there is information that can be shared and information that should not or cannot be shared due to regulations and/or company policy.
Stick to your principles and values. Explain what you know. Don’t be concerned about admitting you don’t know the outcome of something in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Anybody who does make that claim without the facts can quickly lose the trust of others. “I am not at liberty to say that” is a good phrase to have at hand, however, always explain why, otherwise people may suspect that you’re hiding something.
6) Look after your team and its members. Anybody who has been involved in a crisis will know that it is tiring, rewarding, frustrating and exciting all at the same time. Staff are often expected to be on call and act quickly. Mistakes can be made, and in a crisis, there are always those looking to apportion blame.
Sometimes a crisis is a marathon and sometimes it’s a sprint, so make sure you give your team the best tools to succeed and the time and safe working environment they need to thrive. Some people want to be involved in every decision, but that just causes bottlenecks and frustration. Set common goals and work towards them as a team.
When we see that somebody is becoming too involved in something to the detriment of the team, we usually ask them to step back a little. It may not be appreciated at the time, but it definitely helps the team and the individual in the long run.
Helena Söderblom is a Senior Consultant at 4C Strategies, specializing in assisting businesses and the public sector with Crisis Communication. Prior to joining 4C Strategies, Helena was Head of Press and PR for the Swedish Emergency Services and held different communications roles in government at municipality level. Later this year she is holding an online 8-week crisis communication course in Swedish at Berghs School of Communication, which you can sign up for here.