Controlled chaos: How to use communication to manage crisis situations
Companies should keep one priority in mind, that communication needs to be constant.
| 12:45 p.m. May 6, 2020
Check your email inbox. It is likely filled with the coronavirus.
No, not the actual virus that’s impacted nearly every country on the planet, but instead messages from businesses of all shapes and sizes trying to communicate to their audiences (customers, donors, media, staff, etc.) about how this pandemic is impacting the way their business operates and the impact it will have on the recipient of the email.
During times of crisis, businesses and organizations should prioritize communications to help deal with the fallout of the event at hand. From hurricanes and red tide to global pandemics and safety issues, it is important businesses of all shapes and sizes have a crisis communications plan they can turn to.
Yet communicating about a hurricane is different than communicating about a global pandemic.
In order to be prepared for multiple situations, a business or organization should have a core plan that has adaptations or minor changes based on specific situation.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium Public Relations Manager Stephanie Kittle, for example, says her crisis communications strategy is quite different when dealing with a hurricane or red tide than it is during COVID-19. “With the spread of COVID-19, for us the strategy first and foremost was communicating with staff,” Kittle says. “Something we have done really well is making sure that we are being as flexible as possible.”
At first, Mote, in Sarasota, remained open. But after the situation quickly escalated, officials decided to close and allow nonessential staff to work remotely.
Being flexible allowed Mote and its crisis communications team to adapt to an ever-evolving situation. And being transparent with information and decisions allowed them to create authentic responses to questions and concerns, both internally and externally.
Identify target audiences
Soon after the pandemic became real, Pete Petersen, CEO of Sarasota-based automotive marketing firm Dealers United, was bombarded with questions from dealerships he works with on how to effectively communicate about the crisis. Petersen’s crisis communications strategy broke down communications efforts into internal and external audiences. Active on social media, Peterson also posted helpful tips for all businesses, like how to prepare applications for emergency funds under the federal CARES Act.
“Once you brainstorm with your team on how you will help your customers, communicate with everyone both internally and externally,” Petersen writes in a guide to his partners. “There are a hundred ways to communicate from one-to-one phone, email and text to mass communication, such as webinars.”
New College of Florida, meanwhile, had to prioritize its audiences because of the type of crisis COVID-19 presented.
“It depends on the type of crisis, but generally, we focus on communicating first to our on-campus audiences (students, faculty, staff), then to affiliate audiences (parents, alumni, donors) and then to external audiences (legislators, community members, media),” says Ann Comer-Woods, director of marketing and communications at New College in Sarasota, the state’s honors college.
Roles and responsibilities of staff, flow of information and development of precrafted messaging are all important elements of an effective communications plan. These help simplify decision-making during the crisis and increase the speed and effectiveness of the communications.
“When it comes to crisis communications, you have your kind of roles planned out in advance,” Kittle says. “I think the more established methodology you have for distribution of information and not just how you distribute it but who does that is key in the crisis.”
At New College, during times of crisis, it is normal for people’s jobs to change in order to handle the task at hand.
'Once you brainstorm with your team on how you will help your customers, communicate with everyone both internally and externally.' Pete Petersen, Dealers United
“In many ways, the president is the face of the college to the outside world,” Comer-Woods says. “During a crisis, however, the president has to focus on the internal workings of the college and must make decisions, sometimes with limited or changing information, about the college’s response to the crisis and its continuity of operations plan. Determine which member of your organization needs to be part of the crisis management response team.”
Developing and stress-testing those roles before a crisis occurs allows a business or organization to determine what needs to be said, when and by whom and ensures all communications have a single, unified voice and message for people to follow.
So the next time you see an email from a business about its response to COVID-19, understand a lot preparation probably went into that business or organization thinking about how the crisis impacted your interactions with it.
And make sure you take some time to develop your own crisis communications strategy to ensure you effectively get your message across during the next pandemic — or hopefully, just a hurricane.
Charlie Terenzio oversees Client PR Strategy for Sarasota-based Newswire.com, where he works alongside clients to plan, strategize and execute custom PR campaigns. He can be reached at [email protected].