Crises cause uncertainty and anxiety for organizations and their customers, employees and partners. Communicating openly and frequently during a crisis alleviates confusion. It helps organizations sustain trust and protects their brand reputation. Effective crisis communication helps organizations navigate crises with clarity and confidence, maintain business continuity and successfully recover from the situation. Organizations should avoid these common crisis communication mistakes.
Mistake #1: No crisis communication plan
Organizations without a crisis communication plan are usually slower to respond, unsure what to say and unclear what role everyone plays. This lack of clarity results in time lost trying to create a plan versus actually responding. These missteps can damage stakeholder trust and loyalty and impact the business long-term. An effective crisis communication plan includes response plans for all high-potential, high-risk situations the organization may experience. These response plans:
- align with the organization’s purpose and values,
- assign a dedicated response team with clear roles and responsibilities,
- identify the preferred communication channels for each stakeholder group (internal and external) and
- include prepared, templated materials that can be easily customized and distributed using these channels.
Anticipating issues and having a response plan in place minimizes risk, sustains trust and maintains business continuity. Organizations unexpectedly and actively navigating a crisis without a plan in place can document the experience and use those insights to develop a future plan.
Mistake #2: Leaders aren’t crisis-ready
Strong leadership is always important, but especially in times of crisis. People expect a timely, transparent and genuine response from leaders. How well and how quickly a leader responds to a crisis impacts stakeholder trust. Stopping the spread of misinformation, both internally and externally, requires leaders to deliver clear, factual and straightforward messages. But facts alone are not enough. A leader’s response should be genuine and heartfelt. It should acknowledge the emotional toll a crisis can take on people and demonstrate empathy through words and action. Leaders must pay special attention to employees by communicating with them frequently and transparently.
Avoid the crisis communication mistake of ill-prepared leaders by pairing leaders with communication experts who can coach them on how to respond clearly, confidently and empathetically. Organizations with trained crisis-ready leaders are more likely to emerge successfully from crises.
Mistake #3: Taking too long to respond
Speed matters during a crisis. Organizations must respond quickly and with clear, factual information when a crisis strikes. Leaders who make the crisis communication mistake of taking too long to respond, whether it’s because they’re not sure what to say or want to avoid blame, will experience negative repercussions. Stakeholders today hold businesses and their leaders to increasingly high expectations. They will notice the lack of information, make assumptions (typically for the worst) and may ultimately lose trust in the brand. Companies that respond quickly, transparently and openly are more likely to sustain trust with stakeholders and effectively manage the crisis narrative.
Organizations responding to crises should use a multi-channel approach to engage internal and external stakeholders. Companies that respond in alignment with their values, demonstrate empathy, and communicate clearly and consistently from the start of a crisis will be best-positioned to maintain business continuity and successfully recover.
Mistake #4: Not listening to external stakeholders
Organizations that create feedback loops and listen in real-time to external audiences can strengthen relationships by acknowledging how people are feeling, alleviating their worries and meeting their needs. Companies that don’t seek input from their customers, partners and communities might misjudge how people feel and communicate with them in ways that don’t resonate — or, worse, do harm. Insights learned from listening methods, like surveys, focus groups and social media channels, help organizations meet people where they are and show they care.
Listening is also important as the organization and market stabilize after the crisis. Organizations that take time to listen and learn how stakeholder expectations have changed because of the crisis can make informed decisions about strategic pivots.
Mistake #5: Forgetting about employees
Companies sometimes focus so much on their external crisis response they neglect employees. Employees feel the worry, uncertainty and stress created by a crisis as much (if not more) than other stakeholder groups. They’re also essential to crisis recovery and deserve to be treated with care and respect. Organizations can support employees by frequently checking in with them, asking for their input and empowering them to help move the business forward.
Leverage internal communication platforms and technology to inform and engage employees. Post regular and frequent updates to the organization’s intranet, deliver “face-to-face” leadership messages using video conferencing and survey employees to gauge their feelings using the listening methods mentioned above. Reinforce and model the company’s purpose, mission and values to ground the culture and guide their work.
Mistake #6: Continuing business-as-usual with marketing messages
Crises can quickly and dramatically shift the business environment in which an organization operates. A marketing campaign can become irrelevant, or worse, be perceived as tone-deaf or opportunistic in a moment’s notice. Marketing and communication teams must act quickly once a crisis hits to review and adjust external marketing messages and scheduled communications. Companies may need to cancel entire marketing campaigns depending on the severity of the crisis.
Organizations should use their listening methods to guide decisions on which marketing messages to continue and which to stop. Providing direction about which messages are appropriate — and which aren’t — helps the organization implement changes and deliver messages that are sensitive, timely and relevant.
Organizations that avoid these crisis communication mistakes can more successfully navigate a crisis, sustain their brand reputation and build stakeholder trust and loyalty. Some organizations even emerge from a crisis stronger than before, with a better understanding of who they are, whom they serve and their unique value.
About Ayme Zemke, SVP, Client Service
Ayme Zemke leads client service at Beehive Strategic Communication and is a certified crisis communication leader. She has more than 20 years of strategic communication experience and has helped many organizations prepare for and respond to crisis situations in a way that sustains trust and supports business continuity. Ayme’s ability to understand people’s needs and make meaningful connections helps her move businesses forward with purpose. She often speaks and writes about crisis communication, serves on the Minnesota PRSA Board of Directors and has been recognized by PR News as a Top PR Professional and PR Team Leader.