As 2020 progresses, it’s become clear that consumers are holding businesses and corporations accountable for their actions. Companies’ handling of covid-19 and reaction to movements such as Black Lives Matter have (rightly) brought corporate communications under greater scrutiny. And while we’re all learning how to navigate this new territory, there remains a lot at stake and plenty of pitfalls to avoid when it comes to communicating.
I attended PR Week’s Crisis Communications Conference to discuss how the industry is responding to these changing expectations. We considered how to strike the right tone when you have to hold your hands up and apologise, and examples where actions speak louder than words. Here’s an overview of what we discussed.
Once upon a time, a brief holding statement was often sufficient in a crisis – but that’s not going to cut it anymore. The consensus across the conference was that any response to covid-19, diversity or other cultural issues needs to be open, transparent and, most importantly, empathetic.
Both internal and external comms (particularly as employees are likely to share internal memos with the press and on social media) need to have an authentic, human tone. If anything, you say comes across as inauthentic, you can expect to be called out. Avoid corporate jargon and take an honest, hard look at your company. Don’t try to hide any issues – use clear language and where necessary, apologise. While previously an apology could be seen as an omission of guilt, the overall feedback across the various sessions was that an apology doesn’t render you liable, and in many cases, is what’s required to help deescalate a situation.
Clear communication (both internally and externally)
Having a clear approval process and straightforward chain of command will save precious time and avoid miscommunication as a crisis is unfolding. Alexander Davies, Senior Director, Hanover Communications, reiterated the golden rules for crisis management in his session, some of which include:
- Create a concise list of stakeholders involved in the process, usually around three people. They all need to be in a position to sign activity off within a two-hour window.
- Make sure you have all stakeholders’ contact details on file and have a list of back up spokespeople in case anyone is on annual leave or uncontactable.
- Assess whether you need to brief any additional experts on the ground who are potentially closer to the issue at hand.
- Communicate internally where necessary and have a dedicated member of the team leading on internal comms, whether in writing, in person or via video (find out about our internal communications video production services).
Create a crisis management bible
Alexander reiterated the need for a comprehensive crisis comms bible. Removing the need to organise logistical details on the day means you can focus solely on the crisis at play. Some highlights include:
- Identify any potential issues that could happen (e.g. a product malfunctioning, an employee leaking confidential information). No detail is too small, and nothing should be left out.
- Identify roles for everyone, including who will liaise with who, who’s doing social monitoring and who’s setting the ‘war room’, among others.
- Include general company messaging. While these will need to be tweaked depending on the situation, they provide a good starting point and means that all involved will be aware of core company messaging.
- Include all relevant spokespeople’s contact details.
- Make sure that all people in the crisis comms team know where it’s saved and have access to it. Set yourself a recurring task to update it regularly.
Actions speak louder than words
Effective and clear communication is not a get out of jail free card. There have been lots of examples recently where employees have called out companies for making disingenuous comments. If any allegations are true, then legitimate action needs to be taken to address the issues head-on. These issues and strategies then need to be incorporated into your longer-term PR strategy.
A successful resolution to a crisis relies on being well prepared and practised. Having a clear plan in place and a chain of communication ensures nothing gets missed. Once a crisis is over, you must take the time to reflect on what went well and what could have been improved. Keeping an ear to the ground will be vital in knowing how your messaging has been received.
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