Top 5 things you can do today to communicate effectively during a crisis

While it may be weeks, months or even years before we can fully comprehend the health, safety, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, what we do know is how important effective communications is during this crisis. We rely on our leaders to deliver clear, concise, and accurate information over multiple channels and at regular intervals. We also have seen the tragic results of confusing, false, misleading, and divisive communications during this crisis.

Communicating effectively during a crisis is typically the result of a robust crisis communications plan, which has been stress-tested and updated on a regular basis. But what if you are a small business owner or organization that may not have the resources to implement a robust crisis communications plan? Or perhaps you have a plan, but it hasn’t been practiced or updated in years? The good news is: there is help.

Here are the Top 5 things you can do today to communicate effectively during this crisis:

  1. Establish who should be consulted before you communicate

If you are in a large organization, this could be a combination of executives, internal and external subject matter experts and union representatives. If you are a small business owner, this could be you—and a trusted advisor or mentor. No matter the size of your organization, you need to ensure your communications reflect the current health and safety requirements of applicable levels of government, health and safety authorities and professional standards associations. Establishing who needs to be involved in communications will help to ensure messages are accurate and have the proper approvals before they are distributed.

  1. Identify who you need to communicate with and how you will communicate with them

Depending on the type and size of your organization, you will need to identify your target audiences: employees, customers, regulators, government, shareholders, and/or potential investors. Once you have identified which audiences you need to communicate with, you also need to decide how best to communicate with them. In a crisis, conference calls (audio/video) are often the most effective way to share information and respond to questions from key stakeholders, e.g., executives, senior leadership, and employees. Email blasts are most effective when they summarize key decisions that directly impact target audiences, e.g., customers and media. How you communicate and how often you communicate will depend on your target audiences and their roles in managing the crisis.

  1. Ensure you have a clear purpose for your communication

Before you decide to communicate with target audiences in a crisis, make sure you have a clear purpose. A crisis is not the best time to send out a generic email to a distribution list you made five years ago. If you are in a leadership position and most of your communications are centred on your feelings and thoughts, your audience is likely to stop listening. Instead, communications need to explain what the crisis is and its impact, what actions are being taken to manage the crisis, why these actions are necessary, and for how long. Target audiences like employees and customers also need to know what, if any, actions they need to take, for how long, and why these actions are necessary. 

  1. It’s OK to communicate what you don’t know

The first instinct for most of us when asked a question is to try to be helpful. During a crisis, speculating or worse yet repeating something that hasn’t been officially confirmed can cause confusion and additional problems.  A better approach is to acknowledge that you don’t currently have an answer, but will do your best to get one in a timely manner. This approach is also helpful for organizations that communicate with large audiences. In fact, a highly effective way to communicate with a large audience during a crisis is to provide a list of FAQs (frequently asked questions) and update questions and answers as new information becomes available.

  1. Hire professional help, if you need it

If you are still struggling to communicate effectively during this crisis, it is time to hire an expert. Crisis communications specialists can help you deliver clear, concise, and accurate information to your target audiences when they need it most.  Experienced crisis communications professionals also can help you manage your organization’s reputation with media and through social media channels. Managing a business during a global pandemic is tough enough without having to face a public relations crisis. Bringing in a crisis communications specialist will help you protect your business.

About the Author

Jennifer Siddon is a member of the Canadian Public Relations Society (Vancouver) Senior Leaders Network. She has extensive experience helping organizations build trust in their brands with employees, customers, other stakeholders, media, and the public.  Jennifer has held leadership roles in communications and external relations at BC Rapid Transit Company (SkyTrain and West Coast Express), Coast Mountain Bus Company, and Transit Police. As the Associate Vice President of Corporate Communications at Woodfibre LNG, she led communications and community relations activities that resulted in provincial, federal and Squamish Nation environmental approvals for the $1.6 billion project in Squamish, BC. As a communications and external relations consultant, Jennifer delivers corporate and crisis communications plans for her clients. She also works to ensure her clients meet municipal, provincial, federal, and Indigenous nation consultation and other regulatory requirements.