5 essential steps for communicating in a crisis

As turmoil unfolds, your company must show compassion and treat your employees and the public with care and integrity. You’ll earn a loyal workforce and enhanced brand reputation.

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Three months ago, daily life in the United States changed dramatically. The outbreak of COVID-19 led to nationwide shelter-in-place restrictions.

Millions of Americans began working from home, others risked their health and lives working on the front lines, and millions lost their jobs altogether. Employers swung into action to adjust business operations to the new normal, while professional employees switched from face-to-face office meetings to virtual conferences, all while balancing or at least attempting to balance the stressors of full-time lockdown with family, roommates and pets.

Just as we began to adjust our home and work lives to this new, surreal reality, our country was rocked by another crisis. In response to the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis, protests against racial inequality and police brutality have erupted throughout the nation.

Almost everyone in the country has been affected by these events, including American business. Many companies have been quick to share their outrage and commitment to solidarity, while others have failed to respond in a timely and appropriate manner.

For corporate communications professionals throughout the country, however, staying silent is not an option. Companies that do not craft a compassionate and thoughtful response to the ongoing national crises risk damaging their reputation and adding to the uncertainty and anxiety of the times.

Though companies obviously can’t prepare for every possible crisis, they can set up a framework for dealing with unexpected challenges that will enable them to pivot quickly as fast-moving events roll out.

A company can become crisis-ready ahead of time by assembling and training an emergency response team, mapping worst-case scenarios, preparing Q&A documents, and drafting a template for a holding statement. These measures will save time, one of the most precious resources during an unfolding crisis.

In a life-threatening emergency—a manmade or natural disaster—company leadership’s priority must be protecting the safety of its staff and the public. Other concerns are secondary. In the event of less life-threatening incidents such as a cyber security attack, big lawsuit or scandal, the key task is to minimize damage to the company and its reputation. In all crises, legal and HR teams should be consulted early to advise on legal issues and employee policy.

None of the above strategies can work, however, without effective employee communication. Even the most detailed plan will fail if morale collapses or employees aren’t guided on moving forward.

Below is a five-point list of crucial elements of an employee communications response in a crisis. These tips—drawn from our profession’s best practices and shaped by my own insights and experience as a communications specialist—are applicable to our current crisis and can be used as a foundation for any communications response:

1. Address the situation as soon as possible.

In frightening or disorienting times, employees will want to hear from their leaders immediately. Long silences from management can be devastating to employee morale and detrimental to how employees view their company and its leaders. As soon as possible, employees should be informed of what has happened—based on confirmed information only.

Further, given recent events, employees should be reminded as soon as possible of their employer’s opposition to all forms of racial discrimination. Companies should also reassert their ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Use clear and concise language, and strike the right tone. Treat the situation with the gravity it deserves, and don’t be flippant. Early on, management may not have much more information than rank-and-file employees. Therefore, when communicating, be open and honest about what you know, and don’t speculate on what you don’t know.

If an apology is warranted, don’t be afraid to apologize publicly, but make sure to first consult with your legal team about liability.

2. Put a face to the crisis response.

Whether a message is delivered via email, a Zoom call, or face to face, employees appreciate hearing news from someone they trust. This would be the CEO or leadership executive during a companywide crisis, or a regional or local manager if the incident is smaller in scale. Therefore, during a crisis the most important messages should be delivered by relevant leaders in a medium that is user-friendly and accessible to employees.

3. Assess how the crisis affects employees.

Not all crises mean the same thing to all people. Some employees are going to be more severely affected than others. A company’s communications approach and cadence should reflect this reality. All employees should be kept in the loop, but employees who are directly impacted or belong to groups that are disproportionately affected should get extra attention and be treated with sensitivity.

4. Show action, and give direction.

Once the crisis is acknowledged, share what is being done and how other company stakeholders, such as clients and journalists, are being informed. Give employees guidelines, including a media policy, about what they should and shouldn’t say publicly about the crisis and where they can direct inquiries. Don’t make big pledges in the heat of a crisis with little or no follow-through once things have died down. Employees will remember the empty words and broken promises, which can be more damaging than saying nothing at all. Before announcing a plan of action, always make sure the company truly intends to act.

5. Provide an employee resource for information, updates, and community.

Overcommunication is better in situations like this than under-communication. Set up an intranet or web page that provides ongoing and updated information on the incident and response strategies. List the personnel and resources that employees can turn to for inquiries and information about employee assistance programs. Consider forming employee resource groups that support diversity and inclusion and foster community. Provide links to credible third-party informational sources or recognized charities for donations or fundraising.

There’s been a groundswell of change in recent years, and companies will no longer be given a pass for sitting out events and conversations on the global scale. Employers must show through their responses that they are socially responsible and good corporate citizens.

By following these steps and taking a caring and empathetic tone, a company can get through an escalating crisis and safeguard its reputation.

Caroline James is the founder of Forever Speaks PR in Los Angeles. Contact her on LinkedIn here.

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