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