Five steps to successful crisis communications: Expert Q&A

by Nicky Budd-Thanos, on April 21, 2020

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to unfold and affect businesses and individuals across the globe, what constitutes ‘normal operations’ has radically changed. With daily change and unprecedented factors to take into consideration, clear and transparent communication -- to both internal employees and external customers, suppliers, or other constituents -- is absolutely critical to keeping a business operating as smoothly as possible.
We turned to Professor Michael Meath, interim chair and assistant teaching professor at Syracuse University with years of experience in communications ethics, crisis communications and public relations management, for his insights on how business leaders should approach the difficult task of sharing difficult information amid the turmoil of a pandemic. He suggested five steps that can apply to any crisis or disaster situation, as well as his thoughts on how often to communicate, the most important things to emphasize for internal communications, and more. Read on for his thoughts.
Crew: What best practices should leaders keep in mind as they’re communicating with teams during the ongoing COVID-19 situation?
Michael Meath: If you're a leader anywhere and you've got employees looking to you, the number one most important thing any manager needs to do is to first and foremost, just show basic care and concern at the most human level. And what’s really going to spell the difference between exceptional managers and those that just skate by, is which ones continue the art of communicating empathetically after this is over.
Crew: What is your advice for communicating in the middle of a crisis that’s constantly evolving?
Michael: I counsel students and clients to use what I call ‘The Top Five.’ These are the major steps for crisis communications, internal or external:
  1. Take the Critical Ten. When you're dealing with an evolving and sensitive situation, you need to touch the pause button just momentarily. Obviously, in this day and age, you can't wait too long, but before you communicate anything to anybody, it is critical to assess what the situation is, get together with your subject matter experts to understand where you are, and see if there's anything else going on in your organization that relates to or impacts the situation. From there, you are in a much stronger position to prepare your plan.
  2. Formally develop consistent messaging. I have two formulas I apply in a crisis situation where I have to get something out quickly. First, a holding statement, composed of three parts: empathy, fact, and what’s next. Come back to that ‘human-ness’ and be sure to demonstrate true, sincere care. Second, prepare a single page of messaging (using 14-point font), which typically comes out to about eight talking points. This forces you to be succinct, and get only the most important and necessary information out.
  3. Who speaks? Identifying who will be acting as a spokesperson - whether to your employees, stakeholders, or customers - is an important step. It might seem like an automatic default that your CEO will step into that role, but consider factors such as tone, availability, and readiness for both internal and external communications. Remember: you can always go up (bring in a more senior spokesperson), but you can’t come back down.
Bridge difficult conversations. COVID-19 has raised many more unknowns and obstacles than most organizations are used to dealing with, even in a crisis scenario. Leaders must acknowledge an audience's concerns, but sometimes need to transition them some other way to get to the message that you’re comfortable giving at that moment. My favorite six words for bridging are, "What I can tell you is." That is a safe way to get around those difficult questions that either our lawyers or our gut tells us we shouldn't answer, or we aren’t yet prepared with a better answer to the question.
Always take dessert. The end of any question and answer session is your chance to catch up and re-emphasize the important points that you prepared in your page of messages. It's an important opportunity - don't miss it.

Crew: What are the implications of communicating with different audiences who have different concerns?
Michael: It’s critical to try to keep messages consistent, but tailor the delivery as much as you can so that it is personalized to each individual audience. For example, if you've got an assisted living organization with 12 different facilities, and three of them have confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine do not, this will require a different delivery of messages, but there should still be consistency in the message itself. Focus on your tone and emphasis, rather than trying to create unique messaging for each individual scenario.
Whenever possible, conduct these communications face-to-face (or as close as you can get to that in the time of social distancing with video conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Hangout). All the studies show that's the way people want to receive their communications. Try to communicate more often in smaller bites, versus waiting until you get everything together to have the perfect message. Another great option for communicating in crisis situations is the use of video. I love three minute videos because they're just short enough to maintain attention from your audience, and just long enough to really communicate a good amount of information.
Crew: What cadence of communication do you recommend in times like these?
Michael: With rare exception, I would say daily. That rare exception being if conditions really changed on a dime - as we are seeing in the case of COVID-19 - requiring very extraordinary measures. In those events, I suggest a quick blast out to your team letting them know what’s changed and that more details will be forthcoming in the tomorrow’s daily update. You risk fatigue setting in if you communicate too often, so if you do decide on additional unplanned communications, make sure that it truly warrants the time your team will spend reading it. And be sure you are communicating out of care and with useful information – stay neutral and show care for your audiences.
Crew: How should leaders make sure they understand their employees’ needs, to help them with showing empathy?
Michael: It all comes from the top down. If the top is going to show empathy and sincere care, that type of behavior filters down and creates a culture that employees will follow. If they don't see that from their leaders or more locally from their floor manager, for example, then they're not going to emulate it. You're far better off not asking an employee or customer for input if you don't really care. If an assisted living facility says they're going to jump out in front and start asking residents’ families how they think they're doing, my first point is, "Hold on a minute. Are you really going to listen? Are you really going to act upon what you hear?" If what I hear is, "Well, maybe. We'll see what they say," then they’re not sincere about the request. When organizations really want to know the truth and are willing to respond based on the truth, then that sincerity will show.
Crew: How should managers approach communicating with their customers, given constant changes to organizations’ policies and services?
Michael: Rather than making a statement that you can’t take back just for the sake of getting something out there, leadership teams could say to customers, "We hear you. We've got our ear to the ground. We know you're asking about this. We don’t know yet.” A couple of days later, if you still don’t have the information you need, it’s okay to reiterate: "We hear you. We still don't know yet. It's going to be a while before we know."
For this to work, though, it really does have to be two-way communication, just like between leadership and the frontline. Listening, and even more crucially, responding, really does have to take place. If the corporate office is so disconnected from the frontline and from their customers that they're not really listening, then it's hard to communicate or act with any credibility. Over-promising and under-delivering will make not only your customers, but also your employees, wonder if your brand really cares about them or not. If you can really listen and respond, even if you don’t have all the answers, the sentiment and trust towards your company will increase.
Consistent, reliable communication has never been more important amidst this new normal of daily change. To learn more about how Crew is supporting organizations through the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Topics:COVID-19Crisis CommsInternal Communications