Businesses have been managing high-risk, emotionally charged crises for much of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and issues of racial injustice continue to impact every aspect of how we work and live and will continue to for the foreseeable future. So how can and should organizations respond to these and other crisis situations? We asked three experts to share their thoughts on how best to prepare for, respond to and recover from a crisis as part of a virtual panel discussion. Read on to learn more about the crisis communication advice they each shared which can be applied today and into the future by organizations of all types and sizes.
An interview with crisis communication experts
Meet the panelists:
- Molly Andersen: Associate Director, Earned Media, Collegis Education
- Amie Hoffner: Director, Corporate Communications, Dairy Queen
- Rich Sharp: Multi-channel Marketing Strategy Consultant, Rich Sharp Consulting
Q1. The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered life and business. At the same time, the spotlight on racial injustice and violence against Black communities has organizations re-evaluating their values and policies and taking action to support employees and stand up against racism. Communicators play a vital role in helping their organizations navigate this changed world. What communication lessons have you learned, either through direct experience or by observing how other organizations have responded?
(Amie) It’s not so much what we’ve learned as what we have re-learned. With COVID-19 and the civil unrest, we have remembered the importance of our actions matching our words. Leaders at organizations choose whether or not to make statements that share a position on a societal topic to the public, employees or other stakeholders. We re-learned that these audiences are seeking alignment between actions and words to make purchasing, employment and investment decisions. Words simply aren’t enough. Organizations have a great opportunity to take actionable steps, then communicate back to audiences exactly what they said they were going to do and what they actually did.
We also re-learned that it’s next to impossible to prepare for every crisis, yet leaders can prepare to make values-based decisions in any crisis. How could we have predicted COVID-19, that the majority of employees would be transitioning to home offices, the businesses we frequent would close, how we shop would significantly change and students would have to learn from home? Using values to guide business decision-making reflects who you are as an organization and, aspirationally, the type of organization you want to become. To continue to build trust with employees, consumers, shareholders and other stakeholders, actions must match words — and those actions should match the values of the organization.
(Rich) First, tell the truth with all of your audiences. Sometimes we take the truth for granted, but the reality is that truth-telling doesn’t always happen. A great remiss during the 1918 flu pandemic, for example, was that the facts were often unclear. That ultimately resulted in the loss of a lot more lives than if the government had been more forthcoming. It sounds like a simple thing, but if you’re consistent in telling the truth during a crisis, you have legs to stand on as the situation unfolds.
Second, and it’s related to the first point, learn how to assess your sources critically. One of the challenges of telling the truth during a crisis is that you have a lot of different information coming from many places. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. We should go back to how we were trained as communicators when putting together facts and building stories. One thing I learned in journalism school was to get information from multiple sources and confirm those sources to understand what the facts truly are. It’s similar for companies. The current environment requires us to be much better analyzers of news. It’s easy to leap to conclusions during a crisis, and we really need to resist that.
(Molly) I’m a firm believer in communicating early and often during crises. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, it seemed to go from, “Hey, we should probably have a communication plan because people are starting to talk more about this,” to “We need to switch to remote work right now.” It happened so quickly. Organizations were hesitant to say anything in the beginning. They didn’t know if they had anything substantial to say. Eventually, all businesses jumped on the bandwagon, and we all received communication from every company we ever interacted with, telling us what actions they were taking.
The recent spotlight on racial injustice demonstrated the importance of not only communicating early and often but also taking action. We saw consumers calling out organizations who gave blanket statements backed by no action. Ideally, this is not the first time the public heard from your organization about social justice issues, but the reality is, that was often the case. Organizations that were authentic and transparent seemed to receive less backlash and more trust from the public.
You may not have all of your big decisions made at the start of a crisis, but it’s important to tell people what you are doing, whether that’s putting a plan together or taking action to keep customers and employees safe. You want people to know that you’re listening to them, monitoring the situation and taking action.
It’s also important to have one source of truth to send your key audiences to for information. Create a separate landing page on the corporate website for external audiences and consider where to send employees to using your Intranet or other internal tools. Keep these sources consistently updated with a running list of all communication from the organization.
And finally, be empathetic. Recognize that people are facing a crisis, and their feelings are real and valid. Each communication should have an empathetic tone. Especially in the beginning, you need to let people know that you’re listening to them and care.
Q2. How an organization responds to a crisis can have a lasting impact on a business. What one piece of communication advice would you suggest to influence a successful crisis outcome?
(Molly) Have a plan. I cannot emphasize that enough. At the bare minimum, know who your key internal communication stakeholders are and what role each plays. We found this to be especially true following the death of George Floyd and the protests and unrest that followed. It’s important to identify who has the voice at your organization for various situations. While you can’t possibly identify and plan for every situation, having a starting point and relationships established allows for you to move quicker.
Once you have identified your communication team, ensure they are all in the room when discussions are taking place and that they know the latest information and decisions made. It’s challenging when the person responsible for drafting communication or getting communication into the right hands isn’t in the know about what’s happening.
As part of your plan, also have a clear approval process. It’s not uncommon for organizations to have too many cooks in the kitchen. Everybody wants to have their eyes on every piece of communication. In a fluid situation like COVID-19, things are disrupted and in transition, and everybody is busy. It’s crucial to have a clear and efficient approval process. Otherwise, your communication will get delayed, and you’re going to cause frustration among your people. Identify approval steps and have clear protocols in place. And most importantly, when crisis strikes, follow that process you outlined.
(Amie) Now more than ever, organizations are learning the importance of an enterprise crisis management plan and a supporting crisis communication plan. Step number one: if you don’t have a plan, you need one. Leave room for flexibility in your plan when creating it, because you can’t anticipate every decision or scenario. When faced with a situation you didn’t plan for, referring to organizational values can serve as a guide to inform decision-making.
If you have a crisis management plan in place, make sure you’re testing it through a tabletop exercise or a mock crisis or issue management scenario. Testing the process and the technology that supports it several times each year ensures the team is prepared and can address or troubleshoot any concerns. Supporting leaders with media and spokesperson training on an annual basis also helps to keep leaders in practice should a crisis occur. One of the most valuable tools is capturing videos of mock interviews with leaders so they can see themselves the way others see them. It’s an important step in ensuring leaders represent themselves and their organizations to the best of their abilities.
(Rich) Embody empathy. In my role as a strategist, I try to understand where people come from, how they act, how they behave and how they work. In this marketplace and in this very instance, it’s similar. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and movements make it clear that one person’s reality is not another’s reality. Demonstrate understanding and openness that shows you hear people, and you get it. By being empathetic, you are more truthful, relevant and valid.
Q3. Employees are a critical stakeholder group that organizations should be mindful of engaging during a crisis. What strategies do you recommend organizations use to keep employees informed and engaged during a crisis? How can leadership be most effective?
(Rich) Give it to them straight and don’t overpromise. Employees can take it. Tell them you hear them, are listening to them and understand the position they’re in. By approaching employees with empathy, you can better deliver the news and messages that you need to. If you make mistakes along the way, admit them and be upfront about them. Being transparent and accountable strengthens the organization’s credibility with employees. For example, incorporating content and messaging around transparency in diversity — grounded in the company’s ethos — can deliver the direction and actions a company will take to achieve and sustain diversity.
It’s also important to be consistent in message and tone. Employees, especially at large public companies, hear not only what their employer says, but also what the news media says about the company. An employees’ opinion of the organization is shaped outside the walls of the business. Crisis communication teams need an internal strategy to communicate with employees and an external strategy to understand what employees are doing and hearing outside of the organization. Companies that look at employees with a 360-degree view can develop a more in-depth integrated communication approach that allows for consistency in message and tone.
(Molly) My organization, Collegis Education, has done an excellent job of communicating early and staying engaged with employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, we have quarterly company meetings, but in light of the pandemic, we moved to weekly, town hall-style meetings. Our CEO has been a consistent face that shows up at every meeting. He leads the communication efforts for our company by being present. He may not always have a big decision or important information to announce, but he provides consistent communication that offers some stability in a rather uncertain and unstable time. These meetings bring the organization together and remind us that we’re all going through this together.
Additionally, after the death of George Floyd and the protests and unrest that followed, Collegis leadership engaged its employees with written communication and by addressing the situation in our weekly meetings. Most importantly, leadership asked questions and listened to employees. They recognized they didn’t have all the answers but they committed themselves to change and invited employees to be a part of that change.
Transparency is always important, but having a direct line of communication with leadership during a crisis is even more important. Leadership needs to be front and center, whether through webinars, meetings, emails or videos. Employees want to know the company has their back and is thinking about them. A company’s culture is not defined during the good times, but when things get tough. Employees are going to remember how leaders made them feel during these challenging times.
(Amie) Every organization is different, so understanding the organizational culture is incredibly important. Ideally, you already know the culture and your audience and have existing channels for communication. That said, think outside the box, be flexible and generate new ideas. Many communication professionals I’ve talked with are now doing everything from increasing the frequency of their communication to adding new channels of communication and sharing more informal communication.
As you engage your employee base, be ready to pivot and continue to meet your employees where they’re at. Advocate for and champion on behalf of employees to say, “We might need to re-evaluate some decisions we’ve made as an organization to better meet our employees’ needs.” Consider employee well-being. For example, during the weeks of civil unrest in Minneapolis, we thought about how we could keep employees in the most affected neighborhoods safe and provided resources to do so. We considered whether we were providing them the tools they needed or whether there was additional support we could provide. As employees continue working from home offices, consider how to help them find balance in their day and use communication as a tool to do that, especially for parents who are trying to work full-time, teach their children full-time, care for aging parents and whose daycare/eldercare may remain closed.
Q4. There comes the point in every crisis when an organization shifts from crisis response mode to recovery mode, even in sustained crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. What communication challenges and opportunities can companies expect during this transition?
(Amie) People may have thought we were in the recovery phase with COVID-19, but we’ve seen a resurgence after re-opening malls, restaurants, retail and businesses. In some cases, we’ve had to close again. When you’re in a crisis or issues management situation — and certainly one that continues to extend like COVID-19 — you may need to re-evaluate whether you have the resources available on your communication teams to do this work longer-term.
Oftentimes, communication teams run lean. Burnout for some communication practitioners is a real concern, especially considering communication is a high-stress profession that changes frequently to meet the needs of the business and its internal and external publics. Moreover, communication is a feminized profession and managing work, childcare/eldercare and teaching children at home is challenging at best. If we want our communication practitioners to be in a position where they can do great work, we need to take care of them by providing benefits to better support them and right-size the resources with the business needs. This ensures that, if a resurgence occurs, communicators are rested and ready to deliver their best work when it is needed.
(Rich) Ultimately, not everything is in our control. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus — not us — is in control. Right now, the virus is dictating how we react. There will come a time when we can be on the offense, but we’re much more on the defense right now. What things look like today is going to be different than what it looks like tomorrow, the next 100 days and beyond. George Floyd’s death brought to our collective consciousness the deep need to address our nation’s failures. Communicators must be nimble enough to adapt to shifts in societal movements, political climates, economic forecasts, employee attitudes, epidemiological modeling and more. In all crises, you have to be nimble enough to use what you know to build communication plans that can flow as the situation evolves.
Companies also need to understand that in many cases, there are no firm start and stop dates. Ending systemic racism and creating a national environment of racial equity is ongoing. A crisis response has to accommodate the ebbs and flows each situation proffers. Communicators should turn to their crisis communication framework and trust the process and basic tenets of crisis communication as solid and foundational. Once a crisis has passed, it’s an opportunity to take a step back to analyze and evaluate how you responded and apply learnings to your crisis framework to optimize it. The next time a crisis strikes, you’ll be more prepared and come from a position of strength and competence.
(Molly) Ending racism and creating racial equity is a national movement that each business, its employees and consumers are one small piece of. It’s such a big undertaking that it can be challenging to feel or see a positive impact. Organizations should continue to update their employees and consumers on steps they’re taking and highlight progress, when appropriate. We know, as communication professionals, that demonstrating action — big or small — can motivate continued change.
In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, every business is in a different situation, depending on how many employees they have, what their office space is like and what type of work they do. The fact that nobody has the right answer as to when things can and should return to normal operations is really challenging.
I believe that leaders need to listen to their people now more than ever. Whether they send surveys, hold focus groups or gather feedback from managers, leaders should gauge how employees are feeling and what variables may be preventing them from doing their job effectively. Don’t make assumptions about what employees want based on things like their age or job function. Some employees can’t wait to get back into the office and others are not ready from a safety perspective. And that’s okay. Companies are in a unique position right now to understand their employees, develop and re-evaluate their policies and create a truly ideal working environment and culture. The pandemic is forcing employers to take a step back and really understand the dynamics of their employee base and how they can better serve them in the future.
→ Download our Crisis Management Guide to learn how your organization can use the power of communication to maintain business continuity. Get in touch with Beehive to learn how we can help your organization prepare for and manage through unexpected business events to sustain trust and protect brands.