In fast-moving and uncertain situations, many leaders face questions they may not even have answers to. But even then, you need communicating early and often with your key constituencies throughout a crisis. Even if you’re still trying to understand the extent of
the problem, be honest and open to maintain credibility. Approach the situation with empathy. Put yourself in your constituents’ shoes to understand their anxiety.
Step 1: Create a Team for Centralized Communication
Decentralized communicating is understandable and even desirable in large, complex organizations. But in an emergency or fast-moving situation, you need a crisis-response team.
Ideally, these teams should be small, five to seven people. You need to include a member of the leadership team, someone from corporate communications, an HR executive, and an expert in the area of concern. This team should:
- Meet regularly to monitor the situation closely as it continues to evolve.
- Be the main source of information about the crisis.
- Give regular updates to key constituencies.
- Be as transparent as possible. Explain what you know, what you don’t know, and your sources of information.
- Be succinct. Long turgid messages written by health professionals or lawyers will not be read or easily understood.
Step 2: Communicate with Employees
Employees are your most important constituency and function as ambassadors to the community. If they aren’t informed and don’t understand what is going on, communications outside of the organization will be more difficult. The company needs to demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s mind at ease, and provide hope for the future.
To communicate with employees, organizations should:
- Post information regularly in a highly visible location. This can be a physical location or virtual — email, the company intranet, or a Slack or Facebook channel.
- Describe how decisions were made about issues such as travel, working from home, etc.
- Communicate no less than every other day.
- Try to provide timely information rather than waiting until you know all of the answers.
Step 3: Communicate Regularly with Customers
Customers require a different approach than employees given that companies do not have the same access nor frequency with this constituency. You should:
- Focus on what is important to the customer.
- Provide relief when possible.
- Focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities. Companies should rethink advertising and promotion strategies to be more in line with the current zeitgeist.
Step 4: Reassure Shareholders
The epidemic has created intense volatility in the financial markets in the last two weeks. We offer this sound advice for handling investor relations:
- Be transparent in communicating near-term challenges
- Use the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce the corporation’s long-term fundamentals
- Communicate what you are doing about the problem
Step 5: Be Proactive with Communities
What happens within organizations around the coronavirus affects everyone in the communities around them. At the very least organizations should do their best to make sure their actions do not negatively affect members of the community, but you can also think about a crisis as a time to enhance relationships with the local communities in which you operate by:
- Providing resources such as cleaning supplies or food for those in quarantine.
- Information providing to the local media to help to calm the communities down and while also enhancing your organization’s credibility.
- Providing transparency about what is happening within the company rather than going radio silent.
You can also share ways in which you’re helping your local, national, or global community in a crisis.
When dealing with uncertainty, leaders need to look at communication from the perspective of your audience and have empathy for them rather than fear of doing the wrong thing.