Seven Lessons From Crisis Communications During the Pandemic

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Crisis communication

By Adnan Bashir

If you happen to be a marketing or communications practitioner, chances are that the first half of 2020 was a whirlwind time for you – and that’s probably putting it mildly. With the spread of COVID-19 accelerating at what seemed like breakneck speed, several organizations around the world were suddenly faced with multiple fires that needed to be put out – and put out simultaneously, with little to no time to think. Not a great situation to be in, but one with a lot of invaluable learning that you would be hard-pressed to find another parallel for. On a global scale, the Great Recession of 2008–09 might possibly count as the closest point of reference.

This unenviable situation is even more exacerbated if you are a part of a multinational, publicly listed organization with customers, shareholders and employees across the globe, who need to be constantly informed and reassured about the business and its continuity. It necessitates acting rapidly, and to make sure that you are speaking to all the stakeholders who are concerned with the future of the company. Failure to act can create an uncertain atmosphere and an unflattering perception of the company. A 2012 study from the World Economic Forum states that more than 25 per cent of a company’s market value, on average, can be directly attributed to its reputation.[1] According to the Deloitte Global Survey on Reputation Risk, 88 per cent of surveyed executives cited reputation risk as a key business challenge.[2] Reputation is foundational to any company’s bottom line; anyone who thinks otherwise is unwittingly compromising its social and financial capital.

As someone responsible for leading enterprise-wide communications and crisis response from both an external and internal standpoint, here are the seven things I learned during those critical months:

1. Be calm

First and foremost: stay calm. The hard truth is that there are a lot of things that will require your constant and undivided attention at the same time. Losing your composure will do you no favours, nor win you any allies. More importantly, if you are the principal driving your organization’s crisis response strategy, any semblance of chaos can permeate your team as well. Right off the bat, it is nothing less than critical to set a constructive tone. Doing so will determine your level of success in the days, weeks and months to come.

2. Constant and clear communication is more important than ever

The central pillar of a crisis strategy can be summed up in one word: transparency. At a time of crisis, a constant cadence of communication is needed to keep both employees and external parties with a stake in the business apprised of the current situation, and what your company is doing to mitigate the issue at hand. The last thing you want is a communications blackout, giving rise to needless speculation and further uncertainty. Make sure your messaging is finely tuned and unified, and then communicated constantly. As the situation evolves, you will have to adapt your messaging and communication approach accordingly.

Put out daily social posts, send out weekly emails to employees, customers and investors, and schedule town halls – with the CEO front and center – as much as possible. Many companies took the proactive step of setting up a dedicated web page and contact portal for COVID-19 related concerns. While the moment for that has now passed, implement something similar, if you find that it may help. 

3. ‘Tried and tested’ doesn’t always work

The onset of COVID-19 presented a set of challenges that left many seasoned professionals thoroughly unprepared. Over the course of the first few days, it became quite apparent to me that age was no indication of wisdom, regardless of an individual’s prior credentials. Do not take it for granted that senior leadership always knows what is best or that tried-and-tested methods will work. Every crisis requires a tailored approach. Now is the time to step up and make a difference. Take the initiative to suggest new ideas and processes which will enable your organization to weather the storm – and thus demonstrate to your more established counterparts that you not only bring a fresh perspective to the table, but that you are someone who can be entrusted to navigate highly complex situations.

4. Traditional playbooks go out the door and improvisation is the name of the game

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “In preparing for battle, I have seen that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” If there is anything that COVID-19 has taught us, it is that adaptability and thinking on your feet are the key to sound business health. Whether it’s pivoting towards e-commerce or retooling to manufacture essential supplies, several companies across various industry verticals have exhibited varying levels of competencies when it comes to contending with the challenges of the pandemic. Crisis communicators can do no less. With a rapidly deteriorating situation around you, trying novel ways to beat the clock and formulating countermeasures in real-time can be a major differentiator.

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate

There are a million moving parts in any crisis scenario and if you are the one with a role in directing those moving parts, you need to constantly make decisions and focus on several tasks at the same time. Once strategic actions and imperatives have been outlined, delegate and move on to the next task. Avoid getting mired in the minutiae; allow your team-members to take the initiative. Do not compromise momentum in the quest for perfection. 

6. Prioritize both internal and external communication in equal measure

You will face the prospect of simultaneously addressing a number of external audiences, comprising customers, partners, investors and – depending on the nature, size and scope of your business – the government. At the same time, you need to assuage significant employee concerns as well. Do not make the mistake of prioritizing one set of stakeholders over another. All of them are equally important. There is a cost to sidestepping any one of them, in order to tackle the other. 

7. Be bold and decisive

This might be easier said than done, but a crisis of this magnitude is the time to show decisiveness and to showcase leadership. Major events and outcomes will depend on the decisions you make – not only for yourself, but for your entire team and the wider organization. The fact is that during these unforeseen scenarios, morale will generally be low across the board. And it certainly was the case last year. It is in these moments that you need to step up and show constant proactivity, even in the face of adversity and shifting goalposts. Progress lies in keeping the wheels turning. That can mean taking the initiative, in the absence of senior leadership. It can involve being the strategic bridge to the executive team. It can mean delegating from the top or being in the trenches with your team, no matter how menial the task may be. At the end of it all, you will come out the other end stronger than ever.

More often than not, we see marketers and communicators saddled with the burden of being the custodians of brand reputation. To a large extent, they are the arbiters of long-term brand health. Their actions can impact everything from stock price to consumer boycotts and the mental wellbeing of employees. The reality is that when it comes to the pandemic, we are still not out of the woods and might see our crisis management skills put to the test yet again. Multiple stakeholder issues have to be dealt with, and crisp, focused and proactive communication is the need of the hour. According to Weber Shandwick’s The State Of Corporate Reputation In 2020 report, 58 per cent of CEOs say that a company’s response to any crises contributes to its overall reputation.[3] While every crisis is unique in its own way, the aforementioned lessons will stand you in good stead as you attempt to steer your organization through what is arguably the greatest crisis in our lifetime.

About the Author

Adnan Bashir

Adnan Bashir

Adnan Bashir is a Toronto-based communications executive, C-Suite advisor, strategist and former journalist. He has advised CEOs, government officials and nonprofits alike on communications strategy and messaging, and led campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, start-ups and nonprofits worldwide. In his current role as Senior Manager for Global Corporate Communications at Hansen Technologies, he oversees external, executive and internal communications worldwide for the software firm. Prior to that, Adnan worked at FleishmanHillard and Golin. His consulting expertise spans the technology, telecommunications, government, healthcare, energy, logistics, education and financial services sectors.

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