Be prepared – Communicating in a Crisis

Checklist for responsible Crisis Communication

How do you, as a company, communicate during a crisis? This question is, of course, a sensitive topic with the new Coronavirus, COVID-19 hitting all of us pretty hard right now. Most crises are more limited in their reach, but can be damaging if not handled responsibly. As no one knows exactly what kind of crisis we may face at any given moment, I’ll give you some general tips which will help you deal with any type of crisis.

The bigger companies that act responsibility towards their employees, customers, other stakeholders and even society in general, already will have a crisis communication plan at hand. Today’s reality shows us that most companies don’t and deal with crises as they come. Why? Investing in a crisis communications plan may save you a lot of money on the long run. If you’re not prepared, a failed response to a crisis may damage your internal and external relationships, your reputation and market position more than the crisis itself.

Experience required!

I’ve been active in various capacities in corporate communication and dealt with may crisis situations and complex issues. Let me start by saying that crisis communication is about people: their trust, their loyalty and their anxieties. I’ve dealt with issues like environmental issues (spillage of oils and chemicals), stock market issues (investor relations), viral health issues (HIV policies) and issues confronting mental health institutes, as well as recent cases concerning privacy issues (GDPR).

“Be prepared, be open and be professional.”

Based on my experience in the field of crisis communication, I created an easy-to-use checklist* for crisis communication, which I’m happy to share (link at the end of this post). I hope it will not only help you deal with the current crisis, but also the next ones. Because they will come, though no one knows when, where and how big.

1. Be prepared and informed

Pre-organise your crisis communication now!

  • List the types of crises that may affect your business (internally and externally).
  • Create basic scenarios and timelines for the above.
  • Create a list of people who are and should be involved.
  • Determine in advance who’s in charge during a crisis (crisis manager) and who’s responsible for the communication (spokesperson).
  • Make a list of trustworthy information sources on issues that may affect your business (trade and governmental organisations, media etc.).
  • List of contacts to be informed (all relevant stakeholders, obviously including relevant media).
  • Always act according to your company’s corporate guidelines for communication, press, identity and values. Even during a crisis.
2. Start internally

You’re facing a crisis. First communicate internally.

  • Always share relevant information of the situation (after verification) first to your colleagues. So, start your communication inside your own organisation. If available, you’ll work together with your company’s internal communications specialists and HR department.
  • Use e-mail and if possible/necessary SMS/WhatsApp for an internal statement.
  • Make sure that colleagues are informed how to handle external questions and provide contact details of your company’s spokesperson.
  • Use social media wisely and update your intranet accordingly.
  • Provide regular updates, keep colleagues informed at all times.

“A failed response to a crisis may damage you more than the crisis itself.”

3. React responsibly

How, when and where to communicate?

  • React as soon as you can to a crisis situation (don’t forget to provide contact details of the spokesperson).
  • Create a list of possible FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and a release for the media, concerning the issue. Keep it update as the crisis evolves.
  • If you don’t have all information concerning the issue yet, create a first response stating what you know and that as soon you know more, you’ll provide more information. Provide timely regular updates.
  • Write a press/media release and post on social media.
  • Use social media wisely and refer for updates to your website (which you’ll need to keep updated as you go).
  • Avoid rumours, monitor social media responses.
  • Do not overcommunicate!
  • Don’t tell more than you need, and certainly not more than you can.
  • If available, provide visuals to the issue (you want to be in control of what is published as much as possible).
  • In all communication, refer to the designated spokesperson (if that’s not you), not to the crisis manager of management team. The spokesperson will coordinate interviews and update both the crisis manager and the management team.
  • Make sure the spokesperson is always fully informed, trained, experienced and with authority.
4. Be consistent and clear

Shape, target and time your communication.

  • Be clear, to the point, consistent, respectful and honest. Use professional writing and language skills, provide professional photography and visuals. You want to be taken seriously, right?
  • Be media savvy. Make sure your communication fits the needs of those you reach out to, be it internally or externally. Understand what journalists and bloggers need from you.
  • If you’re not sure how to deal with content professionally, contact a PR or crisis communications specialist**.
  • Never say “No comment”, but say “I’ll come back to your question as soon as possible”. And do it!
  • Also, don’t try to cover up the issue. It will always backfire badly.
  • Be human and compassionate. Realise that, in most cases, people and their families are affected personally and are looking for your company’s reassurance. If you do that well, you will improve your reputation. If not, you may suffer long-term damage.
  • Don’t get personal and respect privacy guidelines (in Europe: GDPR).
  • Be visible, available and accessible. If you or your company is not available, the public, the media and other stakeholders will get the information elsewhere (social media). That is in no one’s interest.
  • Do what you promise and adhere to deadlines. Remember, in times of crisis, your trustworthiness is even more at stake than it normally is.

“Crisis communication is about people: their trust, their loyalty and their anxieties.”

Use the best skills

Above I’ve listed some vital points to consider before and during a crisis situation. In short: be prepared, be open and be professional. As for specific communications skills, I would advise you to get in touch with a specialist. They can help you develop a crisis communication plan, provide media training or provide practical support while facing any type of crisis.

Crisis communication is one of the more challenging (and rewarding) areas of my business, and I would gladly give you some more guidance. Please feel free to get in touch with me!

*You can download the checklist as a pdf file here

Finally and on a personal note: please follow the official guidelines provided by your government to keep yourself and all those around you safe and healthy!