Back in the “good old days” — all the way back in early March — “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” were not part of our daily vernacular. Our world has completely turned upside down since then as the pandemic has grown into a public health emergency that has shut down much of the economy worldwide, turned our homes into workplaces and stoked a new appreciation for the certainty and control we used to have as we went about our daily lives.
The biggest uncertainty facing us all is when restrictions on social distancing will ease, paving the path to the more familiar world of travel, sports, concerts and simple get-togethers we navigated prior to the pandemic. For now, employers, organizations and associations are wrestling with unprecedented challenges. Among them: communicating priorities, operations and reassurances both internally and externally. Employees, customers, stakeholders and media organizations need their questions answered quickly.
During a global crisis with so much at stake, the importance of crisis communications has never been more clear. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been especially effective at providing regular updates on COVID-19 that provide facts and context, which also helps to keep inaccurate information at bay. This public health emergency is a good reminder for business and organization leaders to review some basic rules.
When a crisis occurs, delay is always the enemy. But in this era of COVID-19, that is especially true. People are paying close attention to social media and mainstream media, because of interest in the pandemic and because so many are at home. That is why it is vital to immediately assess the threat and pursue means to counter it by confirming facts and sharing your story.
Here are some communication tips to help companies during this crisis:
1. Determine the source of your story and move to limit the spread of inaccurate information. The sooner you respond, the more effective you will be. The goal is to prevent damage that is hard, if not possible, to undo. The old adage is still true: If you don’t define yourself, someone else will. And in this age, it’s important to use all channels to communicate — the media, social media, email and your website.
2. The most effective way to manage a crisis is to engage early in the news cycle. Misinformation doesn’t correct itself, and reporters will write a story with or without your input. Reach out to reporters with information or the promise of forthcoming information. Most importantly, follow up on that promise. Reporters and their editors strive for accuracy, balance and context, but that requires a two-way street. Not responding doesn’t kill a story; it just makes you appear non-responsive or evasive and others will then tell your story for you. Something else to remember: In this digital age, deadlines are immediate. But it also means that stories will be updated regularly online.
3. It is important to ensure that your messaging is consistent. The media is just one audience that needs information in a crisis situation; others include employees, customers, elected officials, regulatory agencies, investors and neighbors. Each will want to know how they’re affected. If you’re not communicating the same information to these different groups, it hurts your credibility. A good way to keep that consistency and credibility is to remember the five W’s: who should be speaking, what are they saying and when, where are they delivering the message and why it matters.
4. Crises, like breaking news, are generally unanticipated unless you are aware of circumstances that are forming below the surface. But there are things you can control, such as taking a proactive approach to crisis planning. There is no reason to be unprepared. That’s why it’s important to conduct a detailed risk assessment to determine your vulnerabilities. Ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” and be honest in that self-analysis, because something eventually will. That risk assessment will help you develop sample communications for key audiences, such as the media. It’s a good practice to develop message templates for different audiences that can be filled in as information is obtained. That means you’re not starting from scratch when things get hot and the clock is ticking.
5. Crisis management depends on not just having a clear plan and strategy, but on making sure the right team is involved and prepared. A public relations professional may be the most effective spokesperson for an external audience, for example, not the company CEO. A human resources person may be most appropriate for communication with employees. Training or a crisis simulation can be an effective way to work out the kinks ahead of time. Just remember, crisis management is not a cover-up. Transparency should be a vital part of any playbook.
The coronavirus crisis will eventually come to an end. Smart organizations will use this opportunity to prepare for the next one to come along.
Kevin Riggs, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a senior vice president at Randle Communications and leads the firm’s crisis communications practice.
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