Are Traditional Crisis Communiction Tactics Useful in a COVID-19 World?

Kathy Keadle in Public Relations

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

In more than two decades of crisis communications work, I have had the privilege to help clients and employers prepare for and respond to incidents such as data breaches, mass casualty events, active shooter scenarios, industrial accidents, natural disasters and even corporate misconduct.

No matter the situation, all good crisis management and communications are based on the same tried-and-true principles.

Through planning, preparation and practice, we predetermine the who, what, when and how of crisis response so that, when the time comes, energy can be focused on the crisis itself rather than on deciding how to approach it. The best crisis communication plans include crisis team roles and responsibilities, decision matrices, key audiences and messaging templates.

But do these well-tested crisis communication strategies and tactics work when the crisis is universal?

The COVID-19 pand emic is certainly a crisis, demonstrating that the importance of crisis communications has not waned. Unlike the crises we normally help clients face, however, this crisis is being experienced by every competitor, every business, and every brand along with every client, customer and stakeholder.

How do our long-held crisis communications tenets hold up?

Tenet 1: Stick to the guiding principle.

We recommend that all crisis response actions and communications stem from a brand’s answer to the question:

“What would reasonable people appropriately expect my brand to do (and say) in this situation?”

As the COVID-19 response became politicized, defining “reasonable people” and “appropriately expect” became a bit trickier. In our post-truth society, two normally reasonable people can come to radically different conclusions on a subject – and both feel fully justified and informed.

Brands that have best weathered the pandemic have taken actions and based communications on the most reliable, universal sources, such as the CDC and local health departments, rather than news agency editorial sources or social media. They have found ways to continue to serve their customers and clients within the confines of COVID-19 restrictions and communicated those options broadly.

Tenet 1: Relevant

Tenet 2: Stay true to brand values.

Most businesses have invested years building their brands and living up to their brand promises, placing their brands in positions of trust among their consumers. Responses that don’t ring true to their brands can destroy that trust in an instant. Express empathy for how employees and customers are being affected and look for creative ways to demonstrate it.

As panic hit consumers early in the pandemic, Kroger – the largest supermarket retailer in the U.S. – wanted customers to know the goods they needed would continue to be available, and they asked customers to buy what was needed in reasonable quantities. Here was Kroger’s statement dissected into a crisis messaging template:

Framing Statement: We asked President Trump and Vice President Pence to let people know there’s plenty of food and plenty of things in the supply chain.

Support 1: As long as customers just buy what they need and don’t hoard, there will be no problems at all – there’s plenty of food in the supply chain.

Support 2: Some stores get a delivery truck once a day, while for some it is every other day. Some stores get multiple deliveries a day.

Support 3: Our warehouses are shipping extra toilet paper.

This response rings true to Kroger’s “Zero Hunger | Zero Waste” initiative and acknowledges the struggles of their customers.

Tenet 2: Relevant

Tenet 3: Internal messages should not conflict with public ones.

In today’s world, “internal” communications should not be considered “private” communications. Internal messages, just like external ones, should be true to brand values, open, honest, timely and calm. Grateful employees and appreciated customers are the most effective advertisers. Make sure to give them reasons to feel grateful and appreciated.

Sectors that employ essential workers – health care, education, supply chain – quickly celebrated employees as heroes, a move that bolstered both employee and consumer confidence.

Manufacturing, however, has struggled to retain consumer faith as accommodations for employee safety were slow to form and even slower to communicate.

Tenet 3: Relevant

Tenet 4: Communicate quickly, but not until you have the whole (or enough of the) story.

Every crisis is a business problem before it is a communications problem, and you can’t communicate your way out of a business problem. The crisis management team should quickly but thoroughly walk through assessment, goal setting and planning steps before messaging begins.

In an ongoing and evolving crisis like COVID-19, successful brands repeat this process regularly.

As the pandemic hit its first U.S. peak last fall, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and personnel led many states to call for hospitals to cease elective surgeries and procedures, including joint replacements, some heart and cancer surgeries, and diagnostic procedures.

Health care systems with established crisis management and communications functions were able to quickly analyze internal and external ramifications, pivot operations and communicate those plans to employees, providers, patients and the public. Those systems that struggled through the analysis or communicated prior to the completion of planning contributed to confusion and worry among their core audiences.

Tenet 4: Relevant

Tenet 5: Keep your promises. (And don’t make promises you can’t keep).

The easiest promise to make and keep during a crisis is to update internal and external audiences regularly. Even when there is nothing new to report, touch base with valued stakeholders at defined intervals (keeping COVID-19 news fatigue in mind). Alternately, some brands have been moved to make sweeping promises regarding future operations, employment or services. Do so with caution, as a broken promise in a time of need can cause long-term damage to a valued brand.

One brand successfully made – and made good on – a feel-good promise.

During the much-publicized (and universally experienced) toilet paper run of 2020, Cottonelle assured customers that they had ramped up production while asking them to avoid panic buying. Their message, “Stock up on generosity,” was paired with a pledge of $1 million and one million rolls of toilet paper to the United Way Worldwide COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund.

Tenet 5: Relevant

In the century since the world’s last global pandemic, the ways we once lived, worked, shopped, played and communicated became obsolete and irrelevant. Life after COVID-19 is sure to be radically different than it was before.

It is good to know, however, that the foundation of good crisis communications still serves us and our brands well and that preparation will never go out of style.

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