Communicating in a Crisis: Breaking Through the Clutter

Altitude Intern

Look at your email inbox right now. How many of the subject lines have COVID-19 or “tips for working from home” in them? Too many – right? Currently, inboxes are extreme examples of external and internal communication clutter. At some point, those emails just become noise and our eyes glaze over them.

So how do you break through that clutter when much of our work and communication is focused online? How does your company or organization stay relevant and valued when there is a lot of noise about a crisis of any scale? What’s your plan for communicating in a crisis?

It takes smart and impactful public relations that is based on planning and skill – and some instinct.

Have a Communications Plan

If you don’t have a plan for communicating in a crisis, get one. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date. In fact, it should be reviewed yearly and redistributed to anyone who may be involved.

Not all crises are large. Some are business-specific and just require quick communication. Nonetheless, we all know people who freeze when a crisis hits while others remain calm and step up as leaders. Having a written communication plan with the “who does what when and how” in any sort of business, industry or national situation can be of great service to you, your team and your company’s leaders.

Here’s what a crisis comm plan should include:

  • Activation criteria: Who decides to put the plan in action and under what circumstances
  • The team: Who is on it and what role does each member serve
  • Key message creation: What resources to use to create key messages (your HR department, the local police or the CDC, for example) and who approves them
  • Audience lists: Media, employees, shareholders, customers/clients, general public
  • Procedures: Channels (social media, email, texts, website, etc.) used to communicate to which audiences and who handles each.
  • Logistics: Location for press briefings, online conferencing
  • Follow-up: Debrief after the situation is resolved to learn for next time

If appropriate, do a practice crisis communications session to make sure you are prepared.

Use Skilled Communicators

Not everyone can set the right tone when writing change or crisis communications. (You’ve all read those memos from HR that make you go “ugh.”) It takes years of evaluating good and bad communications. It takes a mix of facts and emotional appeal. It takes skill that is often hard to teach, and it takes good judgment on when to communicate and how often.

Here are some questions to ask before you decide to communicate:

  • Am I sending out a communication just because other businesses or organizations are doing it?
  • Do I have something to say that really impacts my employees, clients/customers or the public (such as service disruption or slower response times)?
  • Can I provide a solution or steps being taken to resolve an issue?
  • Will I be able to provide an outlet for two-way communication so my audience can respond or ask questions?

Social listening can help you determine what messages are necessary and when, and it can help you appropriately adapt your communications. And don’t forget, employees come first during crisis communication; they should never learn something by reading it online or in the media.

Follow Your Gut

Don’t dismiss your instinct – or the instinct of someone you trust – when deciding when and how to communicate.

  • Consider whether you have the right information to communicate at the right time.
  • Consider if the tone is right for the situation.
  • Consider how the most pessimistic person will interpret your communication and adjust the messaging to address any possible concerns.

Not sure how to write a plan for communicating in a crisis, or don’t have the right skill set on your team? Professional communicators like those at Altitude Marketing can help. (And yes, we thought long and hard about including that last sentence!) Reach out to us if you need consultation or to supplement your communication team.

Altitude Intern