Founder of Cherish PR, Rebecca Oately says good crisis communications are crucial during COVID-19 when all businesses are bound to face at least one tough situation…
I was talking to a friend earlier this month and she was in tears. In the space of 48 hours, her multi-million pound business had shrunk by 60%. In less than three months, she would have shut her doors on a business that she had taken her life to build.
During our conversation, I found myself telling her what I strongly believe; that businesses are run by people and people are good.
If you communicate well, be open, honest and truthful, they’ll understand and help. For my friend and everyone in small business, success in 2020 will equate to staying afloat.
–That’s the common goal that everyone shares.
It’s not just my friend who is facing those difficult conversations. Many organisations are figuring out how they can keep their business and who they need to speak to to achieve stability.
It’s never been more important to explain honestly that you are considering all scenarios to make the right decisions, that things are tough but that you are working hard. It’s communication that’s essential to keep your business going when a crisis looms.
In the past few decades, I have seen numerous clients through crises of all kinds, and there are a few principles that help in those tricky conversations.
The communications function is as much about listening as telling
Don’t ever underestimate the strategic importance of listening. Begin by asking questions of your audiences and listen to your critics as necessary. Try to understand their position, challenges and pressure. Listen and look for key threads and make sure you are communicating how you can address and support them.
Resist the knee jerk reaction
The first response in any crisis is usually the wrong one. The knee jerk reaction of defending your position, jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst (or best) doesn’t lead to good decisions or messaging. The reality is that whilst timing is of the essence, things change. Stories can settle and disappear or evolve and pick up momentum.
Be careful that you are not fanning but pouring water on the flames by choosing the right moment to respond. Also, be sure to monitor the information that’s coming through and figure out how accurate it really is. We’ve seen that often, misinformation travels faster than accurate information.
Keep communications channels open
It’s so important not to bury your head in the sand. Communication operates best when it is two way. Keeping communications channels open creates a more positive environment for you to put your point across. This includes social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
If you are informing your customers about a situation, make sure that you can answer their questions; that you are listening to their concerns and taking them on-board.
Recognise the context
When dealing specifically with criticism, be careful to understand the context in which that criticism is given. It may be that it is being fuelled by competitors under threat or perhaps in the case of the media, the outlet has a particular position driven readers’ social, cultural or political beliefs.
Choose whether it is wise to engage “head-on” or whether you seed your story elsewhere in a less confrontational environment.
Think about the short, medium and long term plan
The first stage of any crisis communications is always damage limitation. What can you do to stop or slow down the story damage? But then, you can turn the reactive into proactive and even create opportunity for your business.
Once you are out of the damage limitation phase, start to think about how you can control the story more. Perhaps you decide to do this with a friendly media outlet or on an industry platform. You may even buy media and create a one-off advertisement? The medium term plan should be about taking control of the situation, gently.
The long term plan should be to heal the wounds of the crisis. For example, if you have a credibility issue, it’s important to get well-respected influencers to recommend or existing customers to say how great you are.
Perhaps you use your experience as a lesson by communicating what you did right and wrong so that others can learn.
Above all, be proactive. Whilst you may not want to sing from the rooftops when you’re still licking your wounds, there is never a more important time to be communicating.
So in this time of global crisis, don’t shy away from talking about it. Reach out and talk to your investors, shareholders, clients, customers, partners. Explain that you have a plan in place and that you are working hard to deliver it. Be honest, show responsibility and communicate well and you will find that you may come out even better on the other side.
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