3 principles for messaging during COVID-19

Don’t overshare, but be honest about the difficulties you face. Here are some tips—some of which countermand some classic tenets of crisis management.

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As the global outbreak of coronavirus continues to evolve, companies of all shapes and sizes face a crisis unlike any they have faced before. Yet in spite of the differences between coronavirus and other challenges, many of the fundamental principles of crisis communications still apply.

Keep these key principles in mind as you develop communications amid the outbreak.

Do not over-communicate.

Remember that virtually every other entity—including federal, state and local government officials, school leaders, restaurants, retailers—are communicating with the public during this time. To make the most of your efforts, focus on your key audiences. (For most companies, this will be your employees.)

When communicating with clients or customers, ensure messages are relevant and helpful, rather than adding more noise to an already overwhelming situation. In many cases, updates about what businesses are doing to clean their stores or weather the financial storm are irrelevant to clients or customers. If you feel the need to communicate with those external audiences, make sure you’re doing so in a way that speaks to their unique needs.

Above all, avoid sending marketing emails—especially marketing emails that are thinly veiled as coronavirus updates. Doing so makes you look tone-deaf and could backfire. (In the past week I’ve unsubscribed from more email lists than I knew I was on, and my bet would be that the same is true for many others.) If you never email a particular list in regular circumstances, ask yourself what good it will do to email it now.

In contrast to email, social media platforms allow organizations to respond directly to your audience members’ unique needs and expectations. The real-time and targeted nature of social media represents a distinct advantage over email or earned media and gives companies an opportunity to put a human face on the situation, its impact and the company’s response.

Avoid one-sided communications.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom in corporate crisis communications has been to communicate only what is absolutely required to mitigate a crisis. In recent years, however, a long list of factors rendered that wisdom outdated. Near the top of the list are changing cultural norms that require more accountability from business leaders to their employees.

One-sided, top-down, opaque communications—especially to employees—make you look out of touch. They also make it look like you’ve got something to hide, which fuels uncertainty and leaves the door open for rumor and gossip.

A good way to avoid these risks is to bring employees into a two-sided, transparent conversation. When you invite employees into the conversation in an authentic way and give them a legitimate voice in decision-making, those tough decisions aren’t nearly as hard to make. Giving employees a view into the decision-making process helps maintain trust in the relationship, and helps blunt the impact of the hardest decisions you may have to make.

Lead with honesty—not unsupportable positivity.

This uncertain time is stressful for everyone. At the leadership level, you might fear a loss of clients or customers threatens your company’s resilience. Remember that your employees are feeling similar stresses. They are seeing news about massive layoffs, and probably have friends or family who have been affected. Even if your company is on relatively solid ground, anxiety abounds.

There’s always a temptation to put a positive spin on the situation. Indeed, one of the maxims of crisis communications is to avoid repeating the negative, but even that conventional wisdom is changing in recent years as audiences of all kinds become more skeptical of what they hear from their leaders, whether in politics, business or other spheres.

Communications in the midst of a crisis like this should balance realism with positivity. Realism about the situation you’re in, the challenges you’re facing and your plan to mitigate those challenges will help employees know you’re being honest with them. Doing so in a way that stresses positivity and optimism will help avoid causing unnecessary panic.

It’s also important to remember that, especially in times of crisis, leadership often requires sacrifice. Finding ways to be generous with your employees, customers and community during uncertainty and panic will demonstrate leadership, build trust and ease anxieties.

The coronavirus pandemic itself is not changing the crisis communications landscape, but it is bringing recent evolutions of that landscape into sharp relief for many companies, institutions and individuals. It’s also highlighting the need to stay on top of the trends so you can be prepared to communicate through unexpected challenges.

Christian Pinkston is the founder and a partner at Pinkston, a strategic communications firm based in Falls Church, Va.

Get more insights on how to manage through the current crisis by joining Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.

COMMENT

One Response to “3 principles for messaging during COVID-19”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    This excellent piece by Christian Pinkston raises the important questions: to whom should we communicate and what should we communicate.

    The key audience for most companies, says Pinkston, will be your employees. Yes “for most companies” but judge whether for YOUR company a “key” audience may also be government people.

    If there is a law that your CEO would especially love to see, your helping to make it happen could be a blessing to your company and to your career.

    Because of the present crisis, the public is exquisitely sensitive to ideas that could make our lives better, and many of these ideas could be brought closer to reality by our government. Your CEO may have made speeches or bylined an article (you may have written) for a trade or internal publication citing the opportunity to improve our lives by updating our laws.

    Also as a result of the present crisis, the media are hungry for ideas on how our lives could be made better. So media may give you massive coverage–major space and time–if you do pieces that readers and viewers would love on (a) how much better things could be, and (b) how our government could make it happen.

    A common fallacy about winning in Washington is that you have to urge people to write their legislators. You don’t! If you help the public to see how it can get more benefit or bear less cost, the public’s self-interest can reward you with literally tons of letters to legislators, mail that in effect tells each legislator here’s what to do to help yourself get re-elected. The public gladly writes out of self-interest and without being asked.

    Your CEO’s speech or article may tell not only what he or she favors but how it will benefit the public and what experts say. If you turn this information into an article that generates heavy public support for the proposal, your lobbyist may say that you are a PR genius and your CEO may say damn right.

    After that, word gets around so if you join a PR Daily Crisis Leadership Board, other board members may solicit your views and feel you out about taking a job with their companies. If this happens, give a kind thought to Christian Pinkston and PR Daily since it was their article that got you to consider communicating for what your country and your CEO need.

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