Keep calm and communicateMonday, 23rd March 2020
Guest blog by Ian Morris, Newgate Communications (www.newgatecomms.com)
In recent weeks, most if not all businesses have been dealing with a crisis on an unprecedented scale, with a vast number of potentially grave and fast-moving implications.
In this environment, the resources of senior management teams are inevitably funnelled towards vital operational decisions about business continuity.
But equally important in such a situation is effective communication. This is true in any crisis, but in the case of coronavirus, even more so. For the vast majority of businesses, both demand and supply have been simultaneously hit, with myriad issues to address from staff and customer safety to cost-cutting, the threat of job losses and pay cuts, supply chain issues and a sudden, extreme drop in revenues. How businesses handle the communications to all their different stakeholders can have a decisive impact on their very future.
Many businesses have well-established crisis communications procedures in place and will have been executing a communications strategy for several weeks now. But some will not, and others will be finding that this is no ordinary crisis, and so their approach needs to be adapted.
Following are some top-level guidelines to help organisations who are still struggling to cope with their communications as they navigate this crisis.
Some key principles
Communications must be honest and transparent. In times of crisis, maintaining the trust of your teams and your customers is vital.
Communications should also be very regular – even more so than in a typical crisis, due to the fast-moving nature of this crisis and the huge variety and gravity of concerns being experienced. Rumours can spread fast, so maintaining regular updates on what the situation is and what you are doing to remedy the impacts is vital.
Be empathetic. Remember that other people’s personal or professional problems may be worse than the difficulties your business is facing, so don’t drown in self-pity.
Remember all your audiences. Businesses must consider how they communicate to all the key individuals and groups that need to understand what is happening within the organisation and how you are responding to it. The central message may be the same but will at least be nuanced for different audiences and what matters to them.
Be consistent. Just because you may be communicating slightly different messages to different audiences, that doesn’t mean these can be different in substance. Key disparities in information can and will be discovered and will result in a lack of trust, so make sure that the left hand is always talking to the right hand and that everyone involved in communicating to your various stakeholders are updated with new information at the same time.
In times of crisis, people look for leaders. Just as the now daily voices of the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Witty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance are reassuring to most viewers, your customers, staff and investors want the same kind of reassurance from the leaders of your organisation.
They want to understand the facts on the ground; how it will affect them; what is being done to mitigate the impact; and to be given some hope and inspiration in their hour of need.
In this scenario chief executives need to be front and centre, communicating much more frequently than they would in a ‘standard’ crisis, engaging with all key audiences and partners to provide updates and reassurance that the crisis is being managed as well as it can be.
When this crisis is over, it is your employees that will help you recover, so it is vital that you treat them with respect, integrity, empathy and transparency.
Don’t hide from communicating tough decisions about the challenges you face including possible job losses and pay cuts. If you explain each situation clearly so they understand the challenges you face and the reasons you are taking decisions, you will gain their understanding and earn their trust.
But equally, remember they are more than just employees and that they will be going through considerable worries in their home lives. Be clear about the steps you are taking as a business to protect your employees and maintain their safety and wellbeing (both mental and physical), not just their professional status.
Proactively talk to customers. Some of them might be affected in ways you hadn’t expected that you can help with, and some might even be among the lucky few whose businesses are experiencing an upside in the midst of the crisis. If you don’t know what they are experiencing, you can’t help, and most will appreciate a bit of concern. Make sure you reach out to all key customers, if not all of them, and maintain open lines of communication.
Make sure systems are in place for listening too, so customer feedback and information on what they are saying is fed back to your central crisis team.
Customers should be frequently communicated with about potential impacts, and where possible to reassure them about any of their concerns.
Customer service teams should be armed with approved and regularly updated information and responses, to put them in a position to inform and support your customer base as enquiries come in.
Different organisations have different key stakeholder groups, but all must be considered and prioritised as part of a crisis response. Supply chains will inevitably be affected so it is important that organisations engage with suppliers to allay fears and try to find solutions to maintain continuity of supply, where possible.
Investors should be reassured that the business is under the stewardship of a capable management team taking a prompt, measured and proportionate response. At times of high volatility it is all-too-easy for companies to make statements that are either overly bullish or bearish. Far more effective in the medium-long term is to take care not to downplay risks or overplay potential upsides, and to realistically assess the potential impact on business performance and the steps companies are taking to manage and mitigate risks.
It is also important to consider the wider community served by your organisation, particularly at a time when local communities need all the support they can get from those able to provide it. Consider what value your organisation can provide to those most in need as the pandemic accelerates. What resources does your organisation have that could be invaluable to the communities you serve? If you can help, this needs to be considered in your communications plan.
Covid-19 is a once in a generation, hopefully once in a lifetime crisis. For businesses, how they communicate is a vital part of how they respond to it and in many cases could be one of the deciding factors in whether they survive.
Thankfully, many businesses already have a well-planned and executed crisis communications plan in place. Others will have been taken by surprise at the sheer speed and scale of this pandemic and realised that their usual protocols are insufficient in the face of it. And others will be finding that they are completely unprepared.
One thing is certain. As with any crisis of this magnitude, the aftermath will see the vast majority of businesses revisiting and improving how they proactively prepare for the worst.