Crisis comms during COVID-19 is hard; don’t do it alone

Crisis communications is difficult all the time, but especially during a pandemic. Isentia's Patricia Kavanagh explains why PR and communications departments need to be at the top of their game, but also seeking help from the right places.

Managing crisis communications is arguably the most challenging mandate for a PR and communications department. They are tasked with coordinating internal and external stakeholders’ responses, as well as planning the crisis communications strategy and effectively tracking organisational reputation. It’s no easy feat. Especially not when all of that has to happen in the context of a global pandemic like COVID-19.

The 24-hour news cycle adds another layer of complexity to crises as news travels faster than ever before. A crisis can turn into a reputation train wreck in a matter of hours, making the task even harder for comms departments.

While not all crises can be predicted, communications professionals can take steps to better manage their response to the crisis by having a quick pause to think, map out a blueprint to successfully navigate challenging situations, and account for any possible scenarios to ensure you’ve got all your bases covered.

Develop an escalation list

Do you know who to call and when, if a crisis strikes in any area of your organisation? Who is your fall back?

Having an escalation contact list will enable comms professionals to be on the front foot and take proactive measures by contacting or alerting the right people as quickly as possible.

With a situation like COVID-19, its indiscriminate nature means you also need to have back up options for your escalation list.

Have a spokespeople cheat sheet ready

Clearly outline who does what and when in times of crisis, including the remit of each of your spokespeople/ leaders, their focus areas and whether they are media trained.

If not, consider a double-barrelled approach with leadership presence, and subject matter experts to support.

Define the severity of crisis

What’s green, amber and red? Use a simple colour code system, such as a traffic light, to define the severity of a crisis.

A severity indicator should be universal and easily communicated, and most importantly, understood. No one wants to wade through jargon in uncertain times.

Who are you talking to?

Proactively define your wider stakeholder audience and channels for different scenarios – which is the most effective and when?

Having a clear picture of how you will execute your communications plan as part of your crisis response strategy, and the key communication channels you will use to reach those audiences (social, print, broadcast etc), is critical.

COVID-19 has seen organisations and media adapt quickly to socially-distanced communication methods.

Reiterate the core messages in each piece of communication

Stick to the facts and provide context. In uncertain times, background context will support your messaging.

Part of this is also thinking about your tone throughout the crisis, as it goes hand in hand with the messaging.

Keep your messages simple, and easy to sound bite or convert to a headline to help get further traction. If you don’t craft this, the media will, which can mean efficacy is lost in translation.

Support your message with a FAQ or data references

We live in an age of data-driven decision making, and this supports the buy-in to your response. It creates trust from your audience, so they are not questioning your decision making. We’re seeing this play out with the COVID-19 response at different levels, across government and the wider corporate world.

Depending on the complexity of the issue, also consider developing additional content to provide more answers and guidance to your audience. This may be in the form of websites, newsletters, social posts and fact sheets.

Monitor the media

Proactively monitoring what’s being said about the issue should be a key component of your crisis response plan. Having access to media intelligence and data analytics is vital to assessing the effectiveness of your response strategy and can help you spot opportunities to pivot your strategy at the right time.

Speed and relevance

In a rapidly changing news environment, make sure you are across the latest, most relevant, news and information. With COVID-19, we’re seeing record levels of content across a single issue.

Yesterday alone, there were almost 100,000 news items in Australia and New Zealand relating to the pandemic; the appetite for news is insatiable. Provide regular updates to ensure there is no room for social media speculation or fake news to define your position.

Get support; crisis is not a solo effort

Having the perfect mix of technology and human capabilities is poised to help organisations from any industry or size successfully navigate crises. It may be wise to outsource elements of your crisis communications strategy to media experts that work as an extension of your team when required.

Stay calm

Always be the calmest person in the room when a crisis strikes.

Stress and panic are contagious – no amount of social distancing will protect you from this.

Patricia Kavanagh is head of sales at Isentia


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