7 tips to help organisations communicate effectively in unprecedented times

There are many versions of this article I could have written over the last few days as Coronavirus has well and truly arrived in the UK. Government communications will always include an element of politics and, whatever you think of the current Prime Minister, it is true to say that the rules of communication have changed dramatically since his political hero, Winston Churchill, was leading the nation through the second world war and beyond.

In an age of social media, 24:7 rolling news and comparative lack of trust in our leaders and national institutions, audiences are more critical than ever, everyone has an opinion (informed or otherwise) and failing to get your communications right can derail even the most sensible crisis response. The health and economic implications of Coronavirus have caught many organisations off guard and, while investment in crisis planning can pay dividends when the proverbial hits the fan, the reality is that many are currently having to manage their communications on the fly.

So, if Coronavirus is impacting on your business, how can you manage your communications as effectively as possible?

Be clear who your stakeholders are

There are many people that have an interest in your organisation and how it operates: from employees, suppliers and customers, to professional advisers, membership organisations, local politicians and even the people who live near your site.

Being clear who these groups are and what levels of interest in/power to influence your organisation they have can help you prioritise which groups to engage proactively when time and resources are short.

Organise your approach

Once you’ve identified your stakeholder groups, it’s time to get a clear communications plan in place. The aim of any crisis communications programme is to become a trusted source of information and to encourage the behaviours you need from key groups or people.

Think about each group in turn: What links do they have with your organisation already? Who is their main contact? How and when do you communicate with them normally? What are their concerns likely to be?

Your answers to these questions should help you identify the messages you need to convey, the best communications channels to use (face-to-face, telephone, email, website message, social media etc) and the best people to front those communications.

Once this planning has been done, it’s important to co-ordinate the timing of any proactive communications so you can make sure key stakeholder groups hear important communications relating to them directly from your organisation, not third-party sources.

Identify your key spokespeople

Private communications are often best delivered by people within your organisation who already have established relationships with the stakeholder group. For example, key account managers may be best placed to handle customer conversations in an engineering firm or the restaurant owner or manager in a leisure business.

However, when it comes to media interviews or press conferences, research shows that people expect the CEO or managing director to show up and be the face of the business.

Leadership and a sense of trust are driven from the top. Now is not the time to put your communications director or marketing manager in front of the cameras, however good at interviews they may be!

Experts and subject specialists can also play an invaluable role as part of your team of spokespeople, answering questions on the detail that the CEO or MD may not be fully up-to-speed with, but this is an ‘as well as’ not ‘instead of’ role.

Don’t create an information vacuum

Crisis situations can be scary. It’s important to get your facts straight before communicating but, leave it too long, and you run the risk of creating an information vacuum that can be filled by third-party commentators, rumour and conjecture – all potentially damaging to your organisation.

Providing a clear ‘holding statement’ that acknowledges an issue, advises stakeholders that you are working on it and provides them with guidance as to when and how they can expect to hear from you formally goes a long way in terms of buying trust and support.

Ideally, this should be available within an hour of your organisation becoming aware of a crisis issue and outline a realistic schedule of updates you can stick to, even if these only say there is no further update at this time.

Say what you’ll do. Do what you say. It’s a crucial part of building trust.

Be clear and consistent in your messaging

Be clear in any information you are communicating to stakeholders and tailor it to their needs but, above all, make sure it is consistent. People talk and most stakeholders don’t fall neatly into one group or another. If you’re telling one group (e.g. employees) one thing and another (e.g. customers) a slightly different thing, confusion reigns and mistrust and misunderstanding can grow.

Establish clear information and reporting lines

Make sure all employees within your organisation are aware of the basics of the situation and where to direct any queries they receive for a formal response.

This can help you stay abreast of stakeholder concerns and highlight issues you need to address that you may not already have thought of. It also ensures there is a single point of contact overseeing all official communications – important if you want to make sure your messages are consistent (particularly where different team members are drafting letters/emails) and avoid confusion down the line.

Be human!

Above all, it’s crucial that all crisis communications are human! It can be easy to use or hide behind jargon and legalese when you’re worried about the future of your organisation but the old adage ‘people do business with people’ holds true, whatever the situation.

Yes, people want to know what is happening. Yes, they want to know how it affects them. Yes, they want to know what you are doing about it. But no-one expects you to have all of the answers at once.

Communicate clearly. Communicate regularly. Treat people as you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes, and you will build trust and credibility for your organisation at what most people understand can be a very trying time.

We’re here to help…

Managing communications in a crisis requires significant time and resources but getting it right can have an invaluable impact on your organisation’s ability to ride the storm and its future success.

Founded during the 2008/9 financial crisis, Encore’s #CIPRqualified team has handled crises from industrial accidents to corporate restructures, environmental disasters to political curveballs. If you need a spare pair of hands or just some advice on the best way to manage communications for your organisation during these unprecedented times, please do get in touch. We’d be happy to help.

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