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Communicating in a crisis

“Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,” is how the boxer, Mike Tyson, responded when a journalist asked if he was worried about his opponent’s fight plan. It’s a quote I use a lot in crisis planning workshops and the value of it is to express to that it is impossible to draw up a detailed plan for the next crisis. What you can do is put in place principles and processes which enable you to respond quickly as events unfold, which is the essence of crisis planning.

Now that a crisis has happened, affecting people, societies, economies and companies around the world, many communications professionals are no doubt feeling like they’ve been punched in the face by events. Here are eight thoughts to help you get back in the ring.

  1. Keep in mind that things are changing. Government policy is evolving, the impact on your company is probably also evolving. Recognise this in your communications and don’t make commitments that you may later have to break. On the flip-side, don’t use this as a reason not to communicate… just be honest about what you do and don’t know at this stage.
  2. Get the tone right. In his many press briefings, Boris Johnson has at times been insufficiently serious in his response. Right now people are looking for serious leadership they can trust.
  3. Equally, use simple language. Remember the words of Winston Churchill, a master of communicating in a crisis, “Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.”
  4. Provide factual updates with practical, useful advice your audience can use to communicate more effectively with you or continue to still do business with you.
  5. Stay in your lane. If you are a B2B technology provider, you have no place advising your customers how to correctly wash their hands. Even if the advice you provide is correct, don’t give advice you are not qualified to give.
  6. Now, more than ever, be aware of the many stakeholders that will see your communications. Resist the temptation to tell everyone they are your principle priority. Your employees read your Twitter and LinkedIn feeds and will notice if you are telling tell customers they are your main priority in one channel and employees they are your main priority in another.
  7. If you need to communicate bad news to customers, clients or any other stakeholder, use the formula:
    1. Regret – say sorry. It means a lot to people.
    2. Reason – explain why.
    3. Remedy – explain what you are doing to fix and or mitigate the situation.
  8. Get past the immediate and start scenario planning for the medium term. You have no doubt spend the past weeks firefighting the first-order effects of the spread of coronavirus. Now is the time to start scenario-planning the second- and third-order effects such as:
    1. An outbreak in your company leads to significant degradation of service.
    2. Something unrelated impacts your ability to service customers and the experts needed to fix the problem are ill or otherwise unable to access your system.
    3. Your business needs to take measures to shore up its cash position.
    4. You need to cut significant costs.