In fast-moving and uncertain situations, many leaders face questions they may not even have answers to. It is important to know that you need to communicate 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. You will sometimes get it right, and you will often get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can.
Step 1: Create a Team for Centralized Communication
Decentralized communications 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. Explain briefly to the point.
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.
Studies have shown that leaders, in particular, have a special role reducing employee anxiety.
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. For example, Target sent out a note from the CEO to customers, describing enhanced cleaning procedures and additional staffing for order pickup and drive up services.
- Provide relief when possible. JetBlue became the first airline to waive change and cancel fees for corona-virus-related concerns. The move went a long way towards reassuring current customers as well as bringing new ones on board.
- Focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities. Companies should rethink advertising and promotion strategies .
Step 4: Reassure Shareholders
The epidemic has created intense volatility in the financial markets in the last two weeks and turned what was an incredible bull market into a potential recession. With earnings season just around the corner, publicly listed companies have a special responsibility to communicate the impact of the virus on their operations.
Step 5: Be Proactive with Communities
What happens within organizations around the Corona Virus 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.
- Providing information 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.
This requires companies to communicate when they don’t have all of the information, to reveal as much as they can about sensitive information, and to be vigilant about correcting mistakes without worrying about the repercussions. As tennis champion Billie Jean King once said: “Champions keep playing until they get it right.”