Written by Ana Ansell, Marketing Consultant, Triad.
My career started at WorldPay before and through the internet bubble of the 1990’s working with media, merchants (retailers) and consumers to convince them that internet payments were the future and safe. I then spent many years working for tech companies helping money cross borders, currencies and formats, including virtual wallets. As a result, there were many opportunities to experience and observe crisis communications and what happens when you find yourself in the eye of a storm.
These are my top tips for today – others will follow to hopefully help us respond and survive these unique and challenging times.
Don’t rush a response – set a realistic expectation
Ideally, a crisis comms plan is created before a crisis hits. But, if you’re reading this during the Coronavirus pandemic, that option has probably already vanished. So, pause and take stock. Even a persistent journalist on the phone (and they are still very rare unless you’re a FTSE 250) can be told that you’ll call back in 30 minutes.
You need time to think – brand values, perspectives and audiences are complex, and you need time to think your response through.
If you have online chat or other digital channels where a more immediate response is expected, add a banner or equip your front line staff with a standard but informative holding statement such as ‘At this difficult time for everyone, we are working hard to maintain our service levels and respond to a much higher than normal level of enquiries. As such, we aim to answer all queries within X hours / by the following day.’
Define (narrow) discussion parameters
Before you issue an official company statement, or answer concerned customer queries, find out what the specific question they want answered is. Even a journalist will appreciate that if you know what area they want to discuss, you will bring a better answer and more ability to discuss it.
If you have time, try the answer out on a couple of trusted allies – you can ask them to put themselves in the shoes of your audience, e.g. customers and to give you their honest feedback. You might be aiming for empathy but end up sounding insincere, or going for sympathy and end up sounding disconnected and selfish. Empower them to give you honest feedback – much better they tell you with time to change the external message than you misstep in a public forum.
Establish a process with a comms leader
Find someone in your business with good emotional intelligence, English and project management skills. Then tell everyone else in the company that external questions from the media or customers are to be referred to them in the first instance.
It may absolutely make sense for a line manager or relevant department head to be copied (Customer services director for example) but a single co-ordinator needs to have a complete view of the competing queries and required responses.
But the trouble with comms in a crisis is the crisis - because we panic in a crisis and then we make mistakes. Yet once you know this, you can get back to control and common sense. So, you’ve got this.
You can’t be too kind
That’s it really. Make sure your statements answer the questions or fears of your audience but don’t forget the kindness. People are scared and, while you might be writing with details of their next electricity bill or an update to the Cloud storage policy, it’s ok to acknowledge that this is an extremely difficult, confusing and emotional time. People’s lizard brains are in overdrive and until they can switch that off, they won’t hear anything else you’ve got to say.
Don’t do definite
This is a pandemic the scale of which the world has never seen before, certainly not in living memory. So, we just don’t know how it’s going to play out. As such, try to quantify statements or time limit commitments because, with the best will in the world, you may have to change your stance. Your audience is reasonable but likely to be more emotional and fearful than normal so reflect that in how you position news.
Empower the comms leader with enough senior time to agree messaging and key responses
Previously, I recommended establishing a comms leader as a single point of knowledge, control and expertise. However, when a crisis hits it’s very normal for team leaders to want to be with their teams. Yet if that comms leader can’t get key stakeholders into a single discussion, to thrash out what we can, want and should say, they can’t fulfill that role. Not only can this lead to a low-quality response, it’s a false economy because the longer the experts stay with their teams, the longer it takes to ease the pressure on those teams with a set of core FAQs, which respond to the most common or potentially damaging queries.
Finalising those FAQs will require those Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), who are often also department heads, to allocate time to the comms process. Ideally, those experts come together in a single, virtual meeting so that different opinions or concerns can be aired in an efficient way.
Balance your heart with your head
It’s unlikely that you can afford to cease charging for your product or service, promise continued employment or predict what your business will look like a year from now. So, don’t.
Equally, if you don’t acknowledge the challenging situation that your clients, employees or suppliers are going through you’ll do lasting damage to your brand.
Again, it might help to think of or role play with different audience type personas to test how responses land. This also gives you the opportunity to discover, and correct if required, any unexpected conclusions that your audiences draws from your messaging.