When communicating in a crisis, ask: Who says what, when and how?

Outreach to your employees is your first priority, as they deserve to know what’s happening, and they can serve as trusted brand advocates. Those key questions will keep things on track.

Crisis comms tips

March 9, 2020, was an interesting day, to say the least. On that day, the stock market started to plummet, and through the next several weeks the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced its largest point plunge ever.

That marked the start of the pandemic for the U.S.

Although we’re still in the midst of it, we’ve all seen the good and bad stories of how companies responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis communication is different from any other type of communication due to the urgency of the situation.

There are three crucial aspects of crisis communication:

  1. Who sends and receives the messages
  2. How they’re sent
  3. When they’re sent

Not every employee should receive every message in an emergency. In some situations, it makes a lot of sense to have corporate-wide communication, but in most cases, it doesn’t. Sometimes, the same message is best expressed in three different ways for three different audiences. In the end, it all comes down to preparation. All of this should be documented and, ideally, tested before an actual crisis hits.

Who says what?

Communicators know that the messenger matters, that they are part of the message. Consider the origin and intent of the communication. Who has the authority to communicate the message most effectively? In crafting or executing a crisis communication plan, your communications team should be composed of:

  • The official spokesperson. This is usually the CEO. It’s important that CEOs lead in “wartime” and that crisis communications come from the top brand representative to communicate a firm grasp of the situation. At a minimum, the initial messages should come from the one in charge of the company.
  • Internal communications manager. This person’s role is to direct and translate communication with all employees, associates and other constituents, such as vendors and suppliers.
  • Media relations manager. This person runs the external communications and develops a relationship of openness and trust with reporters and others in the news media.
  • Channel and content managers. These people will include producers for email, publicity, video, social media and any other appropriate content channel.
  • Expert advisors. You may need internal or third-party experts to supplement your spokespeople.

In many situations, it’s advisable to brief managers first, provide an opportunity for Q&A, and then provide them with templates or slides they can use to conduct one-to-one exchanges with their staff.

Because different people will have different needs, and some messages may be pertinent only to certain groups, it is a good idea to segment your audience(s) and test the quality, accuracy and availability of your distribution lists. This way, you are prepared to send the right message to the right people at the right time.

Here are some ideas for common segments:

  • Groups of employees, by role or department, by business unit, by location and building
  • The leadership team, and hierarchical groups by the leader
  • All managers, and managers by department or business unit
  • All customer-facing roles, such as sales and customer service
  • All employee support roles, including HR, IT, and admins

In addition, your IT and security personnel should include lists for external security groups such as local police, first responders and government officials.

The how

Communicators know the medium is part of the message. The channel(s) you choose will matter.

There are generally two broad stages of crisis communication. The initial response stage is communication during the critical phase, to let everyone know the current understanding of the dire situation and what actions are being taken. The second lifecycle stage is the day-to-day management and communication updates delivered during the containment, recovery and resolution phases.

For initial crisis communications, here are the recommended approaches:

  • Face-to-face interaction is the most trusted format, but it’s not always an option, especially in a pandemic.
  • Live and recorded video communication offers full transparency, with words and emotions, and it works well to reassure employees that the company is behind them in a time of uncertainty.
  • Email is entirely appropriate in all situations and can serve as an initial form of communication or as a follow-up to an initial prerecorded or live video. Keep in mind that people remember 95% of what they watch versus only 10% of what they read.
    • A video paired with an email text summary could be the optimal format.
  • Dedicated internet or intranet sites are the perfect place to consolidate and store information for audience members who want to check in on how things are progressing.

The when

There may be no right time to send a crisis message, but there are wrong times. If you start sending crisis messages at 4 a.m., with more arriving before the official start of the workday, you are signaling to employees that the crisis is out of control.

Be cognizant of how the timing of communications can help reduce your employees’ fear and anxiety. If news stories interrupt or change the narrative, address your colleagues directly by asking good questions, which you can plan to answer in your next routine communication.

Keep these ideas in mind:

  • Update early and often. People don’t expect you to have all the answers. They appreciate honesty and authenticity, and they want to be updated with any pertinent information. Updates are welcome, and a simple, “We’re working on this; we’ll get back to you by EOD tomorrow,” is far better than no communication, and it lets people know what to expect and when.
  • Be consistent. Depending on the status and progress of the crisis, communication could be daily, semiweekly or weekly. Without a routine, you risk letting people get anxious about what’s happening, or having to race to respond to the news cycle.

When it comes to email, we’ve discovered messages that land at the top of the inbox in the morning have the highest engagement rates. For more information on how employees engage with communication messages, check out this study we put together after analyzing thousands of corporate emails.

Be authentic, be calm, be forward-looking

Communicators have the difficult job of providing clear messages to various audiences. During a crisis, a small misstep or exaggerated headline could lead to an increase in employees’ fears and anxieties and spread as companywide miscommunication.

Follow the tips above, and you’ll improve your chances of getting it right the first time.

Michael DesRochers is the CEO of PoliteMail, an email intelligence platform for Outlook. This article is in partnership with PoliteMail.


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