Communicating in the dark – Crisis comms you can’t plan for

by Claire Wilson

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Crisis comms planning is something communications professionals do diligently, while hoping that we’ll never need to put our plans into action. Like having a solid wet weather plan for a BBQ. You hope that just being thoroughly prepared will somehow inoculate you from the event happening. Nobody could have predicted this one. And no amount of planning could prepare for an unprecedented global shutdown. Not only is the scale of the crisis beyond the scope of even the direst scenario plans, but it’s also the type of once in a hundred-year event that you can’t conceive of ever happening. And yet here we are.

The crisis to end all crises

The situation we find ourselves in is unimaginable on every level. People are searching for information, news and certainty – things you would normally expect communications to supply. But unlike other nightmare scenarios you might plan for, this one presents unique challenges to tried and tested communications principles, such as:

  • Communicate transparently – Worst-case scenarios are potentially grim, so this is not necessarily advisable
  • Explain impacts – The extent of the eventual impact is completely unknown
  • Manage expectations – It’s impossible to know how long the situation will last
  • Share next steps – Nobody knows what’s coming next

With the stakes so high and lives and livelihoods at stake, the PR rulebook for crisis management is unlikely to feature the empathy and understanding needed to navigate this communications challenge. This is not about reputation management, it’s about how to keep the people that rely on you informed and aware. It’s about showing you care about your customers, your partners, your employees. How companies respond to this challenge will be what stays with their stakeholders, even after life has returned to normal. Although this is uncharted territory, it’s not time to throw away the communications principles just yet. Some traditional communication planning tools can set you up to handle whatever this crisis throws at us next. And now, in the calm before the dreaded storm, might be the time to get the foundations of your planning in place!

Know your audience and put them first

The first step in any good comms plan is stakeholder mapping. List out all your different stakeholder groups, internal and external, and split them into groups that share characteristics or concerns. Then put yourselves in their shoes and list out what they’re likely to be worried about. For your employees, it’s likely to be the security of their jobs, whether they’ll need to keep coming in to work and how they can arrange childcare while schools are closed. Customers are going to be concerned about whether you’ll be continuing service and how you’ll adapt to minimise contact and keep people safe. This process helps identify what needs to be included in your comms to each audience, and prioritises the messaging within each piece. You should also take this time to decide on the best communication channels for each audience, and how to communicate certain types of message. Don’t be the company that tweets bad news. Just don’t. Some messages should be delivered with gravity and respect, so decide the best way to do that. And remember, not everybody can access news and information digitally. So, keep accessibility and connectivity in mind when planning your comms. Your stakeholder map also helps identify your high impact, high concern audiences. If you have a large workforce, it might be the customer-facing staff who are most concerned about becoming ill or being unable to do their jobs during a lockdown. Keep this in mind when communicating with your team. There will be different levels of impact for different types of workers. Each team member will have their family situation to consider and might be worried about being the sole carer for vulnerable relatives. Other team members won’t have much family and might find lock-down very isolating and lonely. Try to be sensitive to all of these situations.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best

It’s pretty certain that only the most extreme scenario planning could have covered off what to do in a global shutdown. But now that we’re here, it’s time to play catch up. Take your normal scenario planning approach and stretch it. Think of a broader range of outcomes and much longer time frames. This might have turned a corner in 12 weeks (fingers and toes crossed) but consider what you’ll need to do if it’s not. Map out all the things that could happen as this crisis grinds on, and consider the impact on your business, your employees and your services. Put on your black hat and think carefully about the worst-case scenario and what it might entail. If worst comes to worst, you’ll be glad you did this thinking now. Next, think about what your communication response should be in each situation. Sometimes, you won’t need to respond, so keep your stakeholder mapping in mind and don’t feel like you have to communicate for every development.

Communicate for certainty

Although you’re not able to predict what might happen next, your stakeholders will appreciate your efforts to keep them informed. Share what you do know promptly, and if there’s a burning question or elephant in the room that you CAN’T respond to yet, it’s best to acknowledge it. Brushing over issues, or leaving them out, will damage trust and make you appear evasive. People will understand that you might not be able to share everything in the circumstances, but it’s important that you show you are being as transparent as you can be! Think about how often you need to communicate to keep your different audiences informed. It will likely be quite frequently for internal audiences, and less often for external. Over-communicating can add to a sense of chaos and fuel anxiety. So, if it’s feasible, batch news together for a more comprehensive update, rather than peppering people with frequent updates. For internal audiences, it might make sense to share a daily update each morning to keep people informed of new decisions and developments. If you don’t have anything to share, consider letting people know that, just so they know that you’re still on it. But for external audiences, communicate when you have something to say, not just because you feel you should. There’s plenty of noise out there competing for attention at the moment, so keep your communications powder dry until you need it.

What’s next…?

Although we’re clearly in uncharted waters, doing some strategic communications planning now will mean you’re better prepared for whatever comes next. You don’t have to have all the answers to communicate in a calm and considered way. And if there’s anything we need now as a society, it’s clear information we can rely on.

Stay well, everyone!!

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