Despite the fact we are in the middle of a huge crisis, from a comms point of view things have been relatively straight forward. The Government has led the way and businesses have followed. No one is alone, we’re all in it together, which in many ways has made it easier to message and deal with.
But as we start to see things transition into ‘next normal’, businesses have to be prepared for managing their own news and reputations. The media are going to switch their attention away from the Government and will be looking for stories about the fallout. So, everything – from financial struggles to redundancies, closure of offices, pulling back from investment, employees not being supported or treated appropriately, to additional spikes in infection – will prove challenging to manage. Whilst much of this is unavoidable, brands and businesses will be held accountable for their actions during this time, and even the mighty can fall with one wrong move.
Last week, myself and Scotland MD, Morna McLelland, sat on a Marketing Society Inspiring Minds panel to discuss managing comms during a crisis; here’s a summary of some things for brands and businesses to think about.
1. Be Prepared (and know when an issue becomes a crisis).
None of us ever saw ‘global pandemic’ on the risk register of any business we worked with, but every business should be thinking about the potential risks and challenges facing them. These could be financial, operational, people, product or customer related. Prepare your own risk register, work through the scenarios, and ideally, plan how you would respond. If you know something significant is going to happen, take as much time as you can to prepare. Think about who in your organisation will need to be involved, what are the key stages or dates you need to work around, how will you make decisions, and how will you communicate with each other?
2. Understand your audiences
Who are the people you need to influence and communicate with? These could include investors, stakeholders, politicians, customers, and employees. Map out your audiences in relation to your issue. Who is most important, what do they need, what do they want to hear, and how will you reach them?
3. Make your message relevant
Ideally you should boil your comms down to four key messages. When you write them, remember your voice, keep them short, and ideally work with a PR professional to ensure that the words you use can’t be edited down by a journalist or taken out of context in any way. Revisit your audiences and then make sure you tweak messages depending on who you’re talking to – tailored comms will go down much better than one size fits all. Be consistent. Admit mistakes, be clear, and show empathy.
4. Don’t believe your own hype
Of course you believe in the business you work in but that can sometimes cloud your judgement on how people externally will interpret your message. Use someone external to stress test your messaging and approach, and get a real-world view on things.
5. Be clear on your voice and who is representing you
When you speak, how do you sound? If a brand is talking, make sure you don’t ignore your brand personality but be flexible. Even the most irreverent brands need to know when to play it straight. Be real, be authentic, and above all else be honest. The brands who fare best in a crisis are those that are relatable and real – hiding behind corporate masks will do very little to engender any kind of empathy. Get clear on who is going to be your voice. There is of course a role for the CEO but it’s important to consider different people for different roles and to ensure the most effective communicators are used at key moments.
6. Join things up
Make sure that your communications response looks at all the comms channels at your disposal, from PR, internal channels, customer newsletters, social media, stakeholder comms, third party networks and direct communications (picking up the phone or sending someone an email). Timing and the sequence of this is especially critical and will be dictated by your audience mapping.
7. Use third parties to provide a different voice
Is there a third party that could support your story? Can you signpost existing help and information resources? Or similarly, if you know someone is going to be especially negative then you might want to brief them directly in advance.
8. Understand the mood, and how it changes over time
How your story lands will have as much to do with what you say as the context in which it is landing. Make sure you have a good read on the external environment and are sensitive to what’s going on around you. At the moment we are ‘all in this together’ with a collective goal, but that’s unusual. Be aware of wider economic factors that are influencing opinion – both good and bad – and how your messaging might need to change.
9. Communicate often and think ahead
Keep people updated (even when you have nothing to say). Never stick your head in the sand or ignore questions. Review your social content and frequency of communications as people hunger for information, reassurance or guidance. And while you’re in this now, and will undoubtedly be focused on getting out of it as quickly and painlessly as possible, think ahead…what could be the future implications; unemployment, shareholder unrest, staff well-being and mental health, and are you equipped for that too?
10. Get specialist help
Managing reputations in a crisis is something that can’t be taught in a book or by reading a blog. The process and nuances come from years of experience so get someone in that knows what they are doing and absolutely have them at the top table throughout. If you manage something badly then it’s going to take five times longer to clear up and by then your reputation could be severely damaged. Surround yourself with experienced experts that can help you and provide calm and confident support.
As a final thought, while no-one loves a crisis, if handled correctly they can define a business and the leadership team within it. Even when delivering the toughest of messages, if you are relatable and act with integrity and compassion then things might not end up quite as bad as you think.