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Tone of voice in crisis communications – tips to get it right

Successfully maintaining the correct tone of voice in crisis communications is notoriously tough. You need to think carefully about what to say and how to say it, but you don’t want it to sound overly crafted and unnatural. You want to be honest and transparent, but there are some things that you just can’t share with your audience. And your stakeholders want to understand the impact on the business, but you don’t want to appear to prioritise that over human suffering.

In short, it’s a balancing act. And one that you might get just right on some days and fall short on others. There’s no magic recipe and every organisation will have different communication priorities. But here are some quick tips that might help you find the right way for your business.

Image I iphone with 'don't be a stranger' on it

Tone of voice in a crisis – Aim for balance

  • Take a serious tone, but don’t over dramatise or catastrophise.
  • Try for no-nonsense efficiency, not funereal.
  • Audiences might welcome some lightness in places, but this will only be well-received if it’s authentic to your brand.
  • Similarly, don’t appear overly optimistic about the length and extent of the crisis. People will be suffering and a ‘let’s focus on the positives’ view can appear very insensitive.
  • Avoid corporate language that appears to minimise or sanitise the crisis. It leads to mistrust.

Messaging – Clear, honest and human-focused

  • Emphasise the steps you’re taking to address any issues. People will want to see you’ve understood what needs to be done and you’re getting on with it.
  • Support your decisions with expert guidance. E.g. In the coronavirus crisis, if you’ve adopted the WHO protocols to protect employees, then say so. There can often be a lot of misinformation circulating and people are looking for evidence-based decisions.
  • Remember most crises are primarily a human tragedy, and any discussion of impacts on profits etc. will seem insensitive.
    • A better way to bring up business challenges is by focusing on the human impacts of them, e.g. job losses, supply chains disrupting services to people, lack of staff due to illness
  • There will be a range of concerns and impacts amongst your audience, so take the time to consider what they could be for each segment.
  • Be as transparent as you can be about what you know AND what you don’t know. If there’s an elephant in the room that people will expect you to address, address it to the extent that you can. Glossing over anything will appear evasive.

Channels – Remember your audience

  • Remember there are some channels that work better for serious news than others. Don’t make light of bad news by announcing in on Twitter in 280 characters. Give bad news the weight it deserves.
    • That might mean email and post for a mass audience, and will almost certainly mean phoning key stakeholders to speak directly with them.
  • Don’t overcommunicate. Not every little development will need your company to comment, but do some thinking about the developments you really DO need to comment on.
  • Scenario planning will help you to be ready for this. Think through all possible scenarios and developments and decide if and what you should do if they occur.
  • For an internal audience, more frequent communication will make sense, whereas for your external stakeholders a more measured approach might be more appropriate.

Starting a new relationship during a crisis may seem like another trip hazard, but if it provides you with the support you need to overcome the challenges you face then it is an investment worth making. Our communication consultants and planners are specialists in the art of effective tone of voice in crisis communications, and are on hand to help you through these challenges. If you’d like to know more about our experience and team, just get in touch.