The coronavirus pandemic underlined the need to communicate effectively with customers, staff and the media. A few simple steps can ensure you’re ready should you need to do so again. Tim Jotischky, a former newspaper editor and head of enterprise at PR agency The PHA Group, outlines what you need to think about.
None of us have ever experienced anything comparable to coronavirus – and none of us could have predicted the scale of its economic impact. Faced by a crisis of this magnitude, it can be tempting to batten down the hatches. What can you say to your staff, your suppliers or your customers when you have no idea where or how this will end?
I believe that is the wrong response. In any crisis – whether it is a global pandemic that affects us all or a catastrophic failure of customer service that is unique to your business – communication is crucial. If you do not communicate you leave a vacuum that will be filled with misinformation; I saw that mistake made countless times by businesses, big and small, during my career as a journalist.
As a PR consultant, my job is to prevent my clients making the same mistake. Here are seven essential rules for communicating in a crisis:
Think about who are you trying to reach
Start by drawing up a list of the different ‘audiences’ to whom you need to communicate. These are likely to include: staff; suppliers; customers; investors; regulators; and local authorities. Not all will be relevant to your business, but make a comprehensive checklist. The messages you want to communicate will not be the same for each one, so you might need to tailor your communications accordingly. One
size does not necessarily fit all.
Neglect internal communications at your peril
In a crisis, it is easy to focus on communicating to clients and customers but forget about your own staff. The coronavirus crisis is a case in point – it has made everyone fear for their jobs and their futures, and your colleagues need to know you understand that. If you communicate with them openly and honestly, your staff can be your most important ambassadors.
However, you should also understand that anything you say to your staff could quickly become public knowledge. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can say one thing to your staff and another to your customers or suppliers without being compromised. Social media has made everyone their own publisher, so always assume any information you share internally could be shared publicly.
Be honest, be transparent, be accurate
Never assume you can wing it. Once you have put a statement into the public domain, whether through the media or through your own website or social channels, it cannot easily be retracted, so it is important to establish the facts and only share information you know is correct.
Selective omission of facts is sometimes an option but telling lies will come back to haunt you; you will almost certainly be found out. If you do not have all the answers, do not be afraid to say so. In a fast-moving situation it is not a failure to admit that you do not know everything – your job is to show you recognise the problem, are sensitive to obvious concerns and are addressing them in the best way you can, given the information currently available.
You rarely have the luxury of time
In today’s world of 24/7 news channels and social media, you cannot expect to control the pace at which news travels. If you think a damaging story about your business is likely to become public knowledge, you have two options: communicate proactively before it does so; or communicate reactively once it is already out there.
Getting on the front foot and communicating proactively is the braver option and often the best one – it allows you to shape the narrative and present your perspective. But if you choose to communicate reactively, make sure you do so quickly, before you lose control of the narrative.
Take it step by step: provide what information you can when you can. It is better to communicate correct pieces of information incrementally than incorrect information that you might need to clarify subsequently.
Use social channels wisely
Your social channels allow you to communicate your messages directly to your followers, unfiltered by the media. That is a powerful weapon; however, it is a double-edged sword, because your customers will also use them as a platform for public criticism.
It is rarely a good idea to shut down your social channels, as it sends the wrong message. It is better to engage with your critics, observing a simple rule: if they express their criticism reasonably and fairly, they deserve a courteous response. If they resort to foul language or abuse, they have forfeited the right to an open conversation.
Never make the mistake of forgetting that you are having a public dialogue; anything you communicate through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram could be picked up and used by journalists. Also, remember to check any pre-planned posts that might be due to go out and could look highly inappropriate in the midst of a crisis, however innocent they might appear. This is not business as usual and the safest step is to pull them all.
Sorry is the most powerful word in the English language
If you have let down your customers, do not be afraid to say sorry – a sincerely expressed apology can be the best way of disarming your critics, so long as it is sincere. Do not try to hide behind bland corporate speak: use the same language you would to a family member or a friend. And remember that an apology is worthless if it is not accompanied by a credible undertaking that you will find out what went wrong and put it right.
Sometimes you might be concerned that apologising means you are admitting liability, and there will be times when you need to take legal advice – but do not hide behind it as an excuse for not doing the right thing. Your reputation can just as easily be destroyed by the court of public opinion as in a court of law.
Do not be afraid to ask for help
If it is handled badly, a crisis can destroy in a heartbeat the reputation you have spent a lifetime building. Being in the eye of a media storm can be a frightening experience. Few small businesses are well equipped to deal with hostile journalists and a little local difficulty can quickly escalate if it is handled badly.
If you lack the in-house expertise, find a credible crisis communications specialist who can handle the media on your behalf and, if necessary, also take over the management of your social channels. If you need specialist legal support, they will be able to recommend the right lawyers. Calling in outside help will help you avoid a bunker mentality – which can be the biggest mistake in a crisis – and having someone in your corner, fighting your cause, will give you a psychological boost.
FSB's PR/Crisis Management advice service is here to make your life easier with important information and guidance from a public relations expert who can assist you in handling a crisis.