The key lessons I've learnt from managing Crisis Communications

Key lessons for COVID19 - March 2020

To say it’s been an extraordinary few weeks for everyone is, well really an understatement isn’t it.

While the COVID-19 threat had been bubbling away for a while, I doubt anyone could have predicted how quickly we would land here, facing what we are facing right now and how fast the words ‘crisis’ ‘pandemic’ ‘global downturn’ and ‘Level 4 shutdown’ could have become part of our daily news and conversation.

I know this is a stressful time for everyone right now and I want to acknowledge how hard all the Comms people have been working over the last fortnight to help brands or clients understand the magnitude of this and manage through this unprecedented time.

If there is one thing my 20-plus years of comms experience tells me is that this is one of these instances where our expertise and what we do as comms people really matters right now.

I know there’s been a lot of commentary already about ‘How to manage a crisis’ but just thought I would put my own 2-cents in based on what I have learnt (sometimes the hard way) from managing my own fair share of crisis throughout my career.

So here’s goes – my top tips (in no particular order) for managing through this time.



1. Put all BAU Comms on hold

Goes without saying but these are not normal times. Put everything you had planned one month or even two weeks ago on hold and really reassess whether it is worthwhile. Then turn your focus to what and how can you add value to your audience right now.

Here’s some really good examples of companies using their expertise for good!

If your content calendar or comms campaigns have been loaded and are auto’d in advance, stop all activity now. That goes with your Marketing department too. Make sure you work alongside them to review every placement. 

Take a look at every asset, word, & the tone of every piece of content that’s planned to go out into the world right now and determine whether it is appropriate.

I have seen a lot of overt sales campaigns still happening that have obviously been planned prior to this situation unfolding. These are not something people want to see right now if they are worried about the future and their jobs.

In addition, if your comms are intended to be funny or smart in normal times, they risk potentially coming off as insensitive right now so reassess all messages you had planned before this unprecedented situation took hold. The last thing you need is to manage a crisis within a crisis – and one that is your brand’s own doing.


2. Check your words.

One of the biggest mistakes a business can make right now is to send out a communication that hasn’t been seen by more than one set of eyes. In times like these, words matter. Messages matter. Thought & empathy matter. 

Read, re-read, & consider everything you put out into the world right now…as a business and personally. If you are creating thought leadership – be responsible with your words and don’t make this situation feel any worse than your audience already knows it is. It goes without saying but scaremongering and creating hype for the sake of it is the absolute wrong thing to do right now.


3. If you F*@k-up, step up!

Again, goes without saying but if you or your brand say or do something that causes offence or is inadvertently inappropriate, step up, acknowledge it, apologise and make it right immediately. 

People and brands are going to make mistakes. But how you deal with it and make it right afterwards is what people will remember you for. Act quickly and do whatever it takes to rectify it.


4. Media  

Don’t rely soley on media to tell your story. They are slammed right now. If it is a big announcement i.e. redundancies, changes in business practices that may affect people or the wider community or something that adds to the current commentary, then by all means target media. If if it doesn’t or is similar to every other business, park it.

Media also don’t have your back right now – they are dealing with a lot already. It is just one channel and you are better targeting your audiences in other ways if it is a specific-audience related communications. This is where Digital PR comes in.

Besides, if it’s a good story and gets legs, it’s likely to get the media’s attention anyway off social channels if you’re getting a good reaction to it.

We need to be mindful of media. They are dealing with a mammoth task at the moment to keep everyone informed. Don’t complicate their job or send them ill thought out pitches that really have no place in their columns or add any value to the situation right now.

They are slammed.

You can plan and use an integrated channel approach with Digital PR to reach your audience instead.

In addition, try to be as helpful to media as possible without expecting anything in return. Send them things that may be interesting for angles they may not have thought about yet without expecting anything in return.

They are human too – so help them out without expecting anything in return. Goodwill is now the new currency for everyone right now.


5. Steady on the crowing

With the end of the financial year in sight, we need to adjust and really think about how we communicate financial performances in the coming months. While announcing results as a listed company is necessary, care needs to be taken when announcing profits right now given a lot of businesses are hurting.

If your business is benefiting from this situation, also be careful how you communicate that. This is a time for empathy – not one you want to be seen to be taking advantage of.

If you’re not a listed company, share your news with your board & major stakeholders – but right here, right now, people need emotional reassurance. Profit talk isn’t going to help your brand when elsewhere all we see is falling markets, job losses & trends towards recessions with huge global repercussions.


6. Answer all questions

If you’re still able to operate, work alongside your customer care team to make sure they can handle customer conversations properly and that you also can get feedback on what are the most common issues or questions so you can then build comms around that to address it asap.

If you know it’ll be a stretch to have people monitoring & responding to questions across all channels, then be smart at just using one to respond.

Thinking through the biggest obstacles and issues for your customers and audience right now is imperative as there are so many questions for every industry. Be super clear about where your company stands on the top 10 issues related to your brand and provide somewhere people can go for help is the kindest thing you can do for your staff as well as for your customers right now. Keep it updated regularly – people need reassurance during this time.


7. Video

Consider video as a key communications mechanism. Video is exploding and is the most preferred medium right now. Even if you are just recording something on an iphone – do it. People appreciate authenticity – it doesn’t have to be polished.

Media also love it and if you can provide something to them, they will likely use it if it is appropriate. Consider whether you could use video for short, regular updates on your channels (both internally and externally) to keep everyone informed.


8. Sign-offs

Have a plan around internal processes for signing-off official comms & statements – both internal and external –  but make sure that your internal sign off processes doesn’t hinder or change your communications. 

Tone is important in these times and sometimes the best messages can die a thousand deaths via committee editing. Keep it tight. Your people, customers and wider audience want reassurance and are looking to you and your exec team to provide leadership and strength but most importantly being human. I saw a piece on SevenSharp last night that epitomises this – a school principal fighting back tears at the same time as trying to be strong for his school. I won’t forget that.


9. Listen to your gut.

If you don’t think something is right – it most probably isn’t. Insist it is re-jigged, re-write or re-think it entirely. As a comms manager, you need to step up to the plate in times like these and provide leadership to your leaders or clients. Be brave in voicing what is good comms and what is not.


10. Communicating impact

If there are imminent job losses, be at the ready to explain with empathy and reasons why and what you are doing to help your people. It’s these difficult times that honesty, being human, caring, & kind count.


11. Authenticity

Authenticity is crucial to everything you do right now. People are looking for good information, leadership and also a bit of escapism right now. If you provide any of those in an authentic way through media or your own channels – do it!  

Crisis situations aren’t times for “perfection.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Being raw and authentic is what people want. The brands who most show their humanity through connecting authentically with their audience are the ones people will continue to love and support in the long term.

So that’s my thoughts. Hang in there everyone. These are unprecedented times but we will all get through this and come out the other side with a better appreciation of life in its purest form.

For me, this has reminded me again how precious our health, families and friends are. Without them…what have we got?

Kia Kaha




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