Without a doubt, this is one of the most significant crises that many of us will experience in our lifetimes. Its unprecedented nature, the risks to health and economic well-being, and the sudden social isolation now being imposed all combine to make communication especially important. Here are a few suggestions based on what organizations are finding most effective:
Set up a dedicated communications team
As with any crisis, you must designate a crisis team. Setting up a conventional command center may be impossible if everyone is working from home, but the team must work closely through video conferencing and any other available technology. They must be the main source of information, and they need to be succinct. People want answers quickly, not to have to scan through a long document looking for the key points. Especially when they are being bombarded about coronavirus news from so many different places.
Focus on your own people
It is easy to see your customers or end-users as the highest priority when thinking about the survival of your organization. But your own people are just as vital to business continuity. They’re worried about themselves and their families, and they may also be worried about their jobs, their income, and their health insurance. They are looking to you for answers and perhaps want a degree of reassurance that you can’t fully provide at such an uncertain time. But there are some things you can do:
- Empathize: Recognize the challenges they face, and provide guidance on maintaining work-life balance.
- Thank them: Express your gratitude for their commitment to keeping things going under challenging circumstances.
- Level with them: Acknowledge that there are certain things that are just unknowable, like how long it will last.
- Support them: Give them the tools they need to work remotely
- Provide clarity where you can: to the extent possible, address their questions about the continuation of pay, benefits, etc.
- Provide a balance of realism and hopeful optimism
Play back the questions you know are on everyone’s mind and do your best to understand them. Solicit questions, and make them feel heard.
Keep communicating as circumstances evolve
If there were ever a time when “one and done” isn’t enough, it’s now. If your team is working remotely from home, you’ll probably be in touch with them frequently just in the ordinary course of business. But if you own a retail business, for example, or some other business where people are facing layoffs, it’s important to stay in touch with your people as circumstances change.
Ordinarily, during any crisis, the cadence of communications needs to double, if not triple. That’s especially so here, especially since it seems that we receive updates from public health authorities multiple times a day.
As always, you need to be as transparent as possible. Be clear about what you know when you know it.
Surprise and delight your customers
All eyes are on each and every brand and how they are responding to this international crisis. While there is a large push for activism towards finding treatment and cures, it is understood that not every business has the means to make a large impact in this way. But they will be judged for three things:
- How are they treating their customers?
- How are they treating their employees?
- Are they being good corporate citizens and contributing to public health?
For example, some of the airlines took criticism early when they were slow to waive change fees for their customers. Many companies, especially retail and others that have had to close, are facing scrutiny for how they are treating their employees. The employees of one retail chain bitterly complained about a layoff letter they believed was callous, and compared it to a competitor’s letter they thought was much more sympathetic even though the bottom line for both was the same.
What are you doing to help your customers and your employees (and their families) stay healthy even while continuing your business? Pharmacies are providing free prescription delivery. Veterinary offices are picking up pets from their owners’ cars. Dental offices are proactively spacing out appointments to minimize the number of people in waiting rooms. Some grocery chains are setting aside an hour during which seniors can shop without others crowding the stores. Being a good corporate citizen and communicating your new policies effectively will have an important impact on your reputation when this is all over – and at some point, it will be.
Conversely, sales and other promotions that appear to be exploiting the crisis are likely to be counterproductive. You can still discount services or offer easier payment terms without appearing to exploit people’s suffering.
Videos and graphics often go much further than a dense memo
No written communication can be as personally expressive as a video. You may need to supplement a video with more detailed information in an email or on your website, but nothing is as effective as video for conveying personal warmth and concern at a time of such heightened anxiety, and when we have lost so much in-person contact. Don’t be reluctant to rehearse and critique your performance before you send it out. Even the biggest, most experienced stars seldom get it perfect on the first take.
Following these quick guidelines, you should have a framework for being able to begin navigating yourself and your organization through this hysteria. If you remain transparent, quick, agile, creative, and authentic, it is possible to get through this crisis and be stronger from it.