Communication can be daunting in times of crisis. That’s why, as a 30-year comms veteran, I advise my clients to put the right processes and plans in place to be ready. Whether you’re responding to an outside event, like a once-in-a-century pandemic, or to a disaster driven by internal failures, there are essential communication tactics that can help organizations contain a crisis as it unfolds—and even come out stronger when it’s over.
1. Appoint the right spokesperson.
Don't wait until after news of a crisis breaks to decide who's going to be your spokesperson. Avoid flying blind by identifying in advance two or three people who can speak to your organization's different areas. Rather than letting title alone guide you, consider the communication style and skills of your senior staff members.
Nominate a representative who can stay calm under pressure . But also be careful to avoid the overly smooth spokesperson—one who avoids emotion to a fault. Someone with a positive personality who can speak sincerely and compel people to listen. After all, most of us are more liable to hear someone out if we sense that they are being direct and that they truly care.
2. Know your key messages.
It may seem simple, but when you yourself are still learning the facts, it can be hard to identify what you should be telling your stakeholders. Decide the three key points that you want people to understand and remember, and stick to them. In person and in writing, keep it simple: Introduce the three facts, elaborate on and reinforce them in the middle, and then summarize them at the end.
When fielding questions, try to steer your answers back to your key messages as much as possible.
3. Provide context.
Don't just share the raw facts. Without making excuses, explain any background that you believe someone needs in order to fully grasp what is happening. In moments of high anxiety, context can help deepen people's understanding of an issue and can prevent them from making assumptions.
Above all, remember that a business crisis is an emotional event. To be effective, you need to acknowledge the emotions of all stakeholders.
If you believe the crisis is part of a broader issue, such as changes in your industry or new regulations, take the opportunity to paint a bigger picture. Talk about the significance or consequence of the crisis. What triggered it? If applicable, actually go over the sequence of events. You might also add pertinent statistics and comparisons. Finally, using history as a guide, are there predictions or assurances you can responsibly offer?
4. Embrace the FAQ.
People want information during a crisis. But even when they get it, frayed nerves can lead to inability to fully take it in. It pays to have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) one-sheeter at the ready to share widely, such as in emails to stakeholders or a post on your website.
Assign someone to update the information as the crisis unfolds. It's easy to forget about your FAQ and allow content to go stale. But remember that outdated information makes you look unreliable at a time when you want to appear as forthcoming as possible.
Some information to consider including in your FAQ:
- The current state of the problem
- Possible repercussions
- Actions you are taking to prevent the situation from worsening
- A projected timeline for resolution
- What has not changed (e.g., your values, your mission, your core commitments)
- A comprehensive contact list
- Pertinent resources
5. Communicate quickly and fastidiously.
Don’t wait until you have all the information before you address people. Delays can fuel outside speculation. Communicate in as close to real-time as possible, with as many pertinent details as you’re able to reasonably include. Temper that, however, with sharing too much information, so as to avoid creating a deluge that can confuse people. Clarity and conciseness rule when communicating in a crisis.
6. Acknowledge uncertainty—and the emotions it can cause.
Above all, remember that a business crisis is an emotional event. If you're talking to a group of employees, address their feelings of fear about job security and anxiety about the impact of potential changes on them and their families. Validate their uneasiness, and let them know what the organization is doing to address the uncertainties at hand.
At the same time, talk about your own emotions. How do you feel about what's going on? For example, if you don't have all the answers, you can say: "Frankly, I’m not sure what triggered these events. And I assure you, I’m just as anxious to find out as you are. Here are the steps we’re taking to find out and rectify the issue: Number one...”
Explicitly addressing emotions—both yours and your audience’s—can help engage people on a human level. This is especially true in virtual communications, like videoconference, where speakers’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice can sometimes get lost.
7. Tailor your message, but maintain the facts.
Take the time to craft audience-specific messages. Consider each affected group, and ask yourself what kind of information they would likely be seeking. Depending on your business, stakeholders can be many--from employees to customers to vendors and suppliers to creditors and investors. To make sure the right information reaches the right people, keep an updated list of potentially impacted individuals in each group.
But even when segmenting your communications, consistency is important. When customizing your messages to different groups, make sure you don't inadvertently alter or omit relevant facts. Consider also the different platforms you'll use to communicate, and what message formats work best where. For example, because of the character limit, critical points can be taken out of context on short-form social media sites.
Share what you know—and be candid and direct about what you don't know. By not shying away from ambiguity early on in a crisis, you’ll likely maintain—perhaps even boost—your credibility. There is no substitute for candor.
Read more articles on leadership skills.