3 key takeaways from COVID-19 crisis communications

Be transparent, focus on the facts, and be kind to the reporters trying to cover a once-in-a-generation crisis.

COVID-19 crisis comms lessons

The most unique aspect of crisis communication during COVID-19 is that it’s a shared experience. We are living through this together.

I’ve dealt with crises throughout my entire career, first as a reporter and then as a communications professional. The one constant was how different each one was for different audiences.

When I was a newspaper reporter and covering a crisis, my readers might have been completely unaffected or completely consumed by it. A plane crash in a different part of the state may not affect you personally, but the First Selectman of your town being corrupt did.

After I shifted to communications, a crisis felt very insular and isolated. When I worked at the National MS Society and we had a health emergency at a fundraiser, the reporter covering it was not directly affected. For corporate crisis work later in my career, the company could be in turmoil, but it had a limited scope for the general public.

With COVID-19, everything is different. We’re all living through the same crisis at the same time. I don’t need to explain to a reporter what it’s like working from home or the impact of knowing someone afflicted with the virus. It’s a shared experience.

This unique environment has revealed much about crisis communications, some of which we knew—some of which we should’ve known—and all of which we certainly know now.

Transparency, always transparency

It continues to amaze me that anyone in 2020 thinks that they can suppress bad news by ignoring it or not talking about it.

If COVID-19 has reaffirmed anything about crisis response, it’s that the “bad thing” you’re trying to prevent from becoming public will eventually become public. And it’ll look even worse when the public discovers you were trying to withhold it from them.

Almost every negative story that has gone viral during the pandemic has been driven by a public official or a private company attempting to hide information. Whether that’s a state releasing misleading data or a company lying about positive test results at a location, the public gets more enraged by the attempts to deceive.

It’s made even worse during COVID-19 because we all understand how quickly things shift because of this pandemic. The public and your customers will be more understanding if you are honest about what’s transpired and what you’re going to do moving forward.

Once you attempt to deceive, you’ve lost all credibility. Losing credibility now is a stain that will linger longer than the virus will. The general public is already cranky, upset, and uncertain about their lives. They will not take kindly to deception being added to that list.

Facts & figures outweigh clichés

Every consumer brand on the planet has been blanketing the airwaves with commercials about these uncertain times and how we’re all in this together. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these messages, the multitude of them have lessened their impact.

When developing a statement today, these clichés carry even less weight. If there’s a media inquiry about the safety of your employees, simply saying that you care about them helps your cause very little.

Instead, it has become more crucial than ever to deliver specific facts and figures when responding to media inquiries or preparing messaging. Don’t merely say that you’re shifting employees to remote work. Instead, identify how many have and how many will. Don’t pay lip service to your social distancing initiatives. Explain exactly what you’re doing and what date you started.

Even if your plans weren’t perfect from the start, that’s okay. No one properly figured out what to do about COVID-19 from the start. Give the public the truth, backed by easily digestible facts. Show that you’re paying more than lip service to caring about your employees.

Be nice to reporters

In every media training that I’ve ever given, I have always told potential spokespeople to be nice to reporters. Even if you think a reporter is trying to “get you” or not giving you a fair shake, it does you no good to be combative. All you’re doing is fueling their distrust of you.

During COVID-19, this advice has only become more important. These reporters are covering a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and flying almost completely blind. There’s no playbook on covering a pandemic. When I was a reporter and covering something unexpected—whether that was a bear loose on Main Street or a plane crash—the goal was merely to survive the day and get the job done.

With COVID-19, the crisis seems to never end, with news just this week that more than a dozen states have hit new highs in new cases. Reporters are stressed. Reporters are covering multiple stories on multiple beats they didn’t cover before. I’ve seen sports reporters hosting podcasts on a pandemic. These are times none of us were prepared for.

Being nice to a reporter now will pay dividends for months and years to come. If you’re a helpful informative voice now—even in response to a negative inquiry – they will likely keep you in mind for future stories that have a more positive slant.

Sean O’Leary is a vice president with Susan Davis International.

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