Jump Start Your Crisis Communications

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing everyone to think on their feet and react to the needs of their organizations and their stakeholders. It is hard to be prepared for every type of crisis, this one in particular, but some early planning can help you stay on top of your communications when a crisis impacts your operations. All organizations should have some system in place to assess, communicate, adjust, respond and monitor during and after a crisis.  Most crisis planning experts suggest a few key guidelines, which include:

  • assessing the situation,
  • preparing the messaging,
  • getting staff and volunteers on the same page,
  • communicating effectively, and
  • evaluating the response.

It may be difficult to assess all crises before they occur, but organizations can spend some time to identify some generic guides for their response in times of urgency.

  1. Assess the Situation
  • Get the facts – Understand the key factors impacting your organization. Is it a fire? A break-in? A death? Or a pandemic? Local authorities, such as police, fire fighters, public health or government, will usually provide key details needed for your organization to make decisions going forward.
  • Impact on your organization/stakeholders – Who is impacted and how? What will be different going forward? Identify the key issues and stakeholders – who will be most impacted by the current situation, as it relates to your organization? Consider members, staff, volunteers, public, etc.  Do you have to cancel programs? Meetings? Can you take care of your staff? What resources do you need?
  1. Prepare your Messaging
  • Decisions from the top – The executive team, and sometimes board members, may be involved in developing key messaging that will go to each target group. It is up to the executive to decide what information can be released to the public. Be as quick as possible with some key messaging. You are not expected to have all the answers, but news travels fast, so get ahead of any false interpretations or assumptions.
  • Your message matters - Address the changes. Be clear and actionable with your message. Answer the question “What should I do?” for all of your stakeholders. Whether you are cancelling or postponing services or providing alternatives, be clear in your willingness to understand the many different needs of stakeholders during this time, as well as any possible longer-term impacts.

Key elements to include in your messaging:

  • Certainty – The what, when, where, extent of change, and immediate response.
  • Compassion – Ensure a people-first response to the impact of the event.
  • Concern – Connect to your values in your response to the situation.
  • Collaboration – Cooperative efforts to determine cause, severity and response.
  • Control – Actions to ensure the issue/event is handled, with thanks to those providing assistance.
  1. Get all staff/board on the same page
  • Singing off the same song sheet – Make sure everyone tied to your organization understands plans going forward, messaging and their particular roles. Identify key ways to communicate with your staff and volunteers – let them help you share your key messages. If they have questions, make sure they get the answers when available.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Identify the best communication channels – You might need to send your messages out through different channels: a direct email to members; social media posts; online newsletter; a news release; newspaper advertisements; and/or your website can all be used to communicate with your stakeholders/audiences. Consider the best way to reach key target groups efficiently and effectively. Where will your target groups be looking for your message?
  • Stay on top of questions – There are things you might not have even thought about that come as questions from your stakeholders. Create a feedback channel and be responsive. Collect questions and formulate a Q& A that may be helpful to others.
  • Give updates and stay connected – If you plan to continue doing business make sure you stay connected with stakeholders during the crisis period. The goodwill you collected prior to the crisis will help pave the way for the public trusting your messages.  Use this as an opportunity to showcase success stories and respond to stakeholder issues. Acknowledge the stakeholder experience during this time – they may have been inconvenienced or suffered during this crisis.
  1. Life after Crisis
  • Life goes on - the same or new normal? – Be prepared to resume programs and services after the crisis is over. Have your communication ready to update stakeholders of re-openings, relaunches or resuming programs. Acknowledge any changes and address issues going forward.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of your response – Always evaluate your response to a situation and determine best practices or what could be done better next time. It’s a good opportunity to ensure that your emergency call lists, back-up systems, communication channels, and cancellation policies are up-to-date.  Even though nobody wants another crisis, it’s best to be ready and prepared for next time!

“The COVID -19 Outbreak is a Crisis: Have you considered all the issues? By Cathy Heeley, Communication World, February 2020.

“Communicating in Crisis: Four proven Strategies to communicate during Quarantine” by Jason Etter.  IABC Webinar, March 19, 2020.

“Strategic Crisis Communication” by Bernard Gautier, of Delta Media Inc. and Chelsea Maguire, Meltwater, March 30, 2020.