Crisis communications

The importance of communication as the coronavirus crisis unfolds

Written by Lynsey Barry

17 March 2020


Like every business around the world, we’re currently putting unprecedented plans and strategies in place to deal with an unknown outcome. During this unsettling time we’re all now part of, the value of clear communications is more important than ever.

As business professionals, we manage risk all of the time. But, in my experience, a worrying number of organisations don’t consider crisis communications an essential part of their business continuity. This could be devastating for the longevity of a business, especially as the magnitude and impact of the coronavirus continues to grow.

What would you do if an employee was confirmed with the virus? Can you operate with a reduced workforce and provide the same level of service? And how would you handle the media if they got in touch?

The answers to these questions, during any crisis, should not be left to chance. Failure to prepare or taking a conscious decision to not activate a crisis communications plan is as good as preparing to fail, and can frustrate your customers and the public even further.

What we must all be mindful of is the potential for this current crisis to directly impact individuals; members of our team, the wider business as well as, of course, our own personal networks.

Although developing a crisis communications strategy might seem complex, it can be surprisingly straightforward. We’ve been helping clients with their crisis comms and keeping their strategies up to date. From experience, we know it’s essential to have a plan in place before the situation escalates.

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Are you crisis communications ready?

The idea that crisis communications is only for big, publicly-listed companies is just plain wrong.

Yes, they tend to be under greater scrutiny and their size means there’s more scope for things to go wrong. But issues, including the coronavirus, can affect every business and that warrants preparing a solid plan.

Smaller businesses might not have access to the same advice or financial resources as their larger counterparts, but their size is a massive advantage.

They can move quickly and respond to incidents in a timely manner, keeping customers regularly updated and informed of the steps being taken. There aren’t multiple layers in the response approvals process which means they can act almost immediately when needed. This is especially valuable during the current crisis, with parameters changing day by day, and even hour by hour.

Using that agility at a time of crisis can be a huge advantage. Using it to formulate a proactive plan ahead of time shows smart thinking.

Common misconceptions about crisis communications

All businesses experience issues on a regular basis. Some will be more significant than others. But by no means should every issue be treated as a crisis. It will exhaust you and your team and keep you from focusing on making your company a success. You should be very clear about how the two differ, when an issue can become a crisis, and the processes through which you manage them.

Silence is golden

Failure to communicate in a crisis immediately suggests a lack of control or an attempt to obscure the truth. When the eyes of the media are on your organisation, they will poke and prod to find a hint of a story. Any suggestion that you’re attempting to close a story down, rather than sharing information to help explain, puts your business at a disadvantage.

Communication will fix the crisis

This is absolutely, unequivocally not the case. As with all great communication, it has to be based on substance. Simply saying something without following up with decisive action will exacerbate the situation. Communication can mitigate the impact of a crisis, but your operations have to be seen to be reacting to the crisis.

Crisis communications is complicated and difficult

It’s not. It boils down to a common sense approach; key stakeholders working closely and with a clear, consistent message. For a well organised business, crisis communications is seamless.

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How to get started

Responding to a crisis effectively can be difficult, especially if you’ve never experienced one before. Following these steps will make life a little bit easier:

  • Prioritise high-risk areas: You can’t plan for every eventuality, no matter what size business you are. Instead, focus on where you’re most exposed and tier the issues in terms of their potential severity.
  • Be proactive: Don’t let the media – or your competitors – drive the discussion. Don’t leave a vacuum. Get ahead of the narrative as quickly as possible.
  • Be adaptable: Being flexible, accurate and timely with any external communications is crucial, particularly in the midst of fast-moving situations like the coronavirus outbreak. Doing nothing is not an option. Try and update those who need updating on a daily basis and have a fluid response plan that can be adapted easily as needed.
  • Say the same thing everywhere: With so many different channels of communication available today, consistency matters. Yes, you can adapt the tone for the channel if needed, but make sure there is a consistent message throughout media relations, social and digital channels and customer service teams. Every touchpoint has to be aligned.
  • Put a process in place: Develop, test and establish a watertight process to ensure that everything works like clockwork when the time comes. From centralising contact details for all key stakeholders (PR, social, customer service, spokespeople, execs etc) to creating decision trees. Even knowing your enquiry handling rules and SLAs for responses. Make sure staff know what is expected of them and what they should or shouldn’t be doing or saying.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others: There’s no shortage of examples of high-profile companies failing spectacularly at crisis management. Take note of what they did wrong – and what they did right – and learn from it.

And above all, never forget that in this instance the coronavirus is a humanitarian issue. Every message, both internal and external, should show empathy for those affected directly and indirectly. Take care of your team and yourselves.

Need more help with your crisis comms plan? We can help.