The Covid19 pandemic is turning the world upside down. So let’s take the opportunity to turn crisis communication on its head too. The traditional ‘corporate voice’, where everyone’s remorselessly cheerful and bad news gets discreetly airbrushed, is looking increasingly outdated. More and more organisations are declaring a social purpose beyond simply making money. Others are committing to not damaging the planet. Extinction Rebellion’s exhortation to ‘tell the truth’ strikes a chord with many.

 

But old habits die hard.  It’s tempting to say ‘no comment’ or pretend that everything is rosy when it’s not. And even if you have what my old Catholic priest used to call a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ – i e, you’re a sinner now but you really really REALLY want to be good – you have to start somewhere.

 

So hopefully this checklist will give you some ideas.

 

  1. Be open and honest

Tell the truth about how the crisis is affecting your business, what you plan to do and how you think it will pan out. What’s closing? What’s staying open? How is service affected? From when? What can and can’t you supply? How is your workforce affected? They’re bound to be worried, so what can you tell them? Tell it plainly like it is, even if you don’t have much information. And if you honestly don’t know, or there’s a reason why you can’t say anything, explain that too. It’s better for everything to be out in the open by default than secret by default.

 

  1. Appoint a Crisis Management Team and a Crisis Communications Team

Fixing a crisis and telling people about it are two separate activities and require different skills and perspectives.  So, Mr/Ms CEO, appoint the two teams and make sure everyone knows who’s on them. The two teams will spend a lot of time liaising with each other, but their roles are not the same. You’d expect the CEO to head up the CMT along with departmental heads, subject matter experts and perhaps a lawyer or two. The first two things they will do is draw up a Crisis Audit and a Crisis Plan – what’s the situation now, from different perspectives, and what do we do about it.  The CCT, probably headed by your head of PR, will begin with a Stakeholder Analysis. This will identify the separate audiences they need to keep informed and reassured.

 

  1. Decide on a spokesperson(s)

The CEO doesn’t always have to be the official spokesperson for the organisation. For big announcements it might be appropriate. But keeping the media and other stakeholders abreast of what’s happening could be a big job. So the CEO doesn’t need to do every interview and make every statement. In any case s/he may not be a great communicator. The spokesperson should sound credible when speaking for the company, and be comfortable talking to newspapers, radio and TV and doing podcasts. This person should be trained in these roles. The crisis comms team should also include someone who can update social media.

 

  1. Publicise who does what

Everyone in the company should know whose job it is to handle inquiries, whether from the media, customers, suppliers or the public. Contact details, including mobile or home numbers of anyone on call out of hours (and someone should be) should be widely known by everyone in the firm, including evening and weekend security staff.

 

  1. Post a holding statement

Everyone is desperate for news of how the crisis will affect them. As soon as is feasible, create a matter-of-fact all-purpose statement of the situation, put it on your website and share it on social media. Use simple but friendly language. This should be updated frequently whenever there is reliable new information.

 

  1. Talk separately to your team(s), customers, suppliers and the public

Your team members are naturally concerned to know how the crisis will affect them. Are you doing enough to protect their health? Supplying gloves? Masks? Taking other precautions? And will they still have jobs? Lose money? Be laid off? Your customers, suppliers, the public and other stakeholders will also have legitimate fears and concerns. Devise a stakeholder communication strategy. Use apps like WhatsApp and Slack to create different levels of dialogue. And it should really be a dialogue, not a series of announcements from on high. Your audiences can keep YOU informed on what’s going on as well as being informed by you.

 

  1. Find out what people are saying about you

Set up Google Alerts for your organisation, key personnel and industry topics.  And level with your people. They are your best source of intelligence on what people are saying and the progress of the crisis. And if in return you share information with them, they will become valuable allies and advocates. If a rumour is being spread, publicly deny it. Use the same medium for the denial as was used to spread the rumour. Use common sense – sometimes a rebuttal intended to quash a rumour can end up spreading it further.

 

  1. Use Zoom or Facebook Live for updates and news conferences

In the current crisis these are ideal ways of spreading news without spreading germs. And the ‘chat’ facility means the audience can ask questions and create a dialogue as in (7), providing invaluable feedback and practical suggestions.

 

  1. Beware the ‘horns and halo’

In the absence of hard facts, rumours spring up. And leaders who start off being portrayed as saints often turn into devils in the popular imagination without actually doing anything, simply because they have failed to provide information. So keep the information coming. Make everything public unless there’s a strong reason to withhold it. Too many organisations do it the other way round.

 

  1. Be kind – don’t profiteer

Finally, we all have to make a living, but in the new reality, think of ways to give, not take. Waive fees and cancellation charges and offer to provide extra stuff for free. Think laterally about new ways to provide old services. And explain what you are doing at every stage. Mistrust is caused by fear and uncertainty. And the ‘fatcat’ image of a CEO dies hard. So any change runs a risk of being misunderstood and interpreting as cynical profiteering. You may find this hurtful, but try and understand. Everyone is going through this crisis.

 

NB: During March 2020, I’m offering 45 minutes’ telephone/online training in: handling interviews with newspapers, radio and TV; writing and delivering online talks & podcasts; communication and other skills for leaders and teams. Any or all for just £99. Full disclosure: It’s cheap while I’m still a remote training newbie! Give me a call on +44 7813 480986 or tony@tonycoll.co.uk. www.tonycoll.co.uk, www.tonycollmedia.com.