Communicating in a Crisis

April 29, 2020 | lora reuther

This article was published by Renaissance Executive Forums
By: Cynthia Guiang, CMO, Orca Communications

There are companies that have a team standing ready to communicate in a crisis – the nature or the size or both of their business dictates that they be prepared. But many are finding themselves in uncharted territory, because in our current reality, we are all communicating in a crisis.

Sometimes our first instinct is to stop communicating. We fear that we may say something wrong or we’re honestly not quite sure what to say. However the first rule of a crisis it to make sure you are communicating. Don’t try to ignore the elephant in the room. Or don’t spend too much time trying to get your response just right. If customers may be upset or concerned, you need to acknowledge the issue. It can be as simple as a statement that you understand their concerns and are working on a remedy or you share their concerns and you are in this together or you are looking into their concerns and promise a full investigation.

And the sooner you communicate, the less likely panic will set in. Take control of the narrative. Instead of allowing the public to second guess you, put your official statement out there. Silence is interpreted as guilt or lack of concern. Even if your statement is simply designed to buy you time to come up with the proper course of action, they can see you are both acknowledging the problem and working on a solution. Be sure this is presented in a way that puts the “victim” first. In other words, whomever may have been injured directly or indirectly by your company’s actions or inaction, show empathy. You can say you feel for the victims without claiming any liability for their misfortune.

Whatever you say or do, be honest and transparent. Bold face lies and denials will come back to haunt you. Anything you say after your dishonesty has been exposed will be doubted. Honest statements, even if they show vulnerability, are better. You can acknowledge something happened, that you share their concerns, that you feel bad about it as well, that you are committed to understanding what happened, that you will maintain transparency as you work through this. And all of this can be done without taking blame or passing blame.

No one likes the person who is always blaming someone else. Don’t be that person. It may indeed not be your fault. It may factually be someone else’s fault. Don’t play the blame game. If there is any perception that you are at fault or involved in the transgression, you need to be part of the solution. Rather than trying to prove who is at fault, move into the position of the problem solver. As you communicate your findings, as you work with your customers or the public to solve the problem – they will be able to see that not only were you not at fault, you still jumped in to help them in a time of need. While your involvement may not have been required, the goodwill you build up by investing in their well-being could provide solid returns for years to come.

As you prepare your responses as you work through a crisis, work through multiple “what if” scenarios. Choose the path that you feel is both the right thing to do and has the least potential blowback. But stand ready to pivot should the reaction be less than favorable. It is hard to predict exactly how something will be received. You can run it by your team, your attorneys, trusted partners, and even customers you hold close, and I recommend that you do, but they may all be wrong in knowing exactly how your message will be received. Choose an action, because that is always better than inaction, but also be prepared and willing to change direction if needed. And if you do need to change direction, just be honest. Apologize for any missteps and let them know you will take their feedback to formulate a better solution.

Perhaps the most important piece of crisis communication, and any communications really, is to be consistent in your messaging. Make sure you have outlined your talking points and that everyone is on the same page. Limiting who the official spokespeople for the company will be is helpful in maintaining this consistency. However, all employees should be informed and also understand who should make statements on behalf of the company and how important it is that they limit who they talk to and what they say about the company – especially during a crisis.

These may sound like rules for engagement when something goes terribly wrong, like your product has a safety recall or you have an employee that goes rogue. In fact, these can be employed for dealing with the smallest crises like an unhappy customer. The reason, however, that I bring them up now is we are all finding ourselves communicating through a crisis at this moment. You may have found yourself wondering how to best communicate, when to communicate, or if to communicate at all when your customers/the public are dealing with the impact the pandemic has had on their businesses as well as their personal lives. You don’t want to say the wrong thing or be insensitive in your timing. Yes, we are ALL the victims in this. Your hesitancy is correct.

In mid-March I certainly found myself in this position. Literally overnight it went from a concern to a crisis and I couldn’t ignore the obvious. There were some on our team that felt a communication to our customers might set off alarm bells – perhaps they weren’t even thinking about the impact the shelter-in-place orders that were starting to be implemented around the country would have on them, or perhaps it really wouldn’t have an impact, should we worry them needlessly? Our team quickly walked through the what ifs, but we decided to move forward with a simple acknowledgment. Because communication is key.

We let our clients know we understand they may have concerns and that we are all concerned. We assured them we were monitoring the situation closely and being sensitive to how we communicate with the media. We shared that every indication is the media is still working on stories. Many of the opportunities are with COVID-19 tie-ins, so we are looking for those on their behalf as well as pivoting certain pitch angles to be more appropriate at this time. We also offered up that we are here to discuss their concerns and strategize with them on how to best navigate this unprecedented time.

After this communication went out, did we have clients reach out to us with concerns and ask out of their contracts? A few. And I believe they may have contacted us anyway. We also had many more respond in thanks – they were worried but they appreciated knowing that there were still public relations opportunities, that we were working harder than ever and that we were mindful of how we were pitching. We didn’t wait for them to ask or to panic wondering what to do – we controlled the narrative. And when those few did call to ask out of their contracts, we were prepared.

First, we knew if they could afford it, this was not the time to stop their PR efforts. We explained that many of the best placements are what we call long lead, and we need to stay on top of those so when that key time comes (summer or fall-themed features for example), their products are included. There were also some that could potentially flourish in this time with their particular product, opening up new opportunities. Most of those conversations led to clients staying the course. And there were some who we agreed should pause (as an example, if manufacturing was stalled) but they agreed to continue paying their retainer and build a credit – to honor their contract and to keep US in business.

Because our consistent and heartfelt message to our clients has been “We are all in this together – so we came up with solutions that ensured all of us will come out on the other side stronger than ever.”

This is also what I wish for all of you. Communicating in a crisis, in the end, is about looking out for each other. Bad things happen, sometimes through fault (acknowledge and own it) or no fault (acknowledge and help find a solution) of your own. What is important is that good people do the right thing.

Communicating your good intentions and following through are what matter most. Especially in a crisis. Especially right now.