Crisis communication is a key element of any problem-solving matrix. Leaders are strongly expected to provide assurance, clarity and transparency during a crisis.
The mistake that most organisations do is to get defensive. We must remember that extraordinary challenges require extraordinary courage. However, strong leadership should also have an efficient framework to manage communication during a crisis situation.
Let us try to understand the key points of such a framework that should be readily available.
Form a Team
The first thing you must do is to form a team. We often commit the mistake of trying to tackle the problem alone. Remember, seeking consultation is a sign of strength. Steer away from your ego and bring on humility. While forming the team you will need to pick 5-7 member with the following key competencies.
- Domain knowledge of the problem/person related to the problem
- Legal Expert
- Human Resource
- Someone who is frank with you and has your trust.
The team must communicate several times a day. A document that contains key pointers around the problem should be shared. An initial consensus around the nature of the problem and what it entails should be reached without delay. The first decision the team needs to make if indeed it is a crisis. Is it of a private (internal) or public nature. Decide who are the affected parties, employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders, government and so on.
At this point, you need to re-assess the constitution of the team. you may have to remove or add members. This is also the time to decide who else needs to be informed of the problem.
Should you get public and make an initial statement. Many leaders avoid getting public fearing backlash and further deterioration owing to a negative reaction.
Remember while forming a team you have concluded whether this is a crisis and if it is of a public nature. Once this is ascertained there is no point for a delay. Because if the news is leaked through other sources the damage will be far bigger.
We must also remember that the first response during a crisis also helps disseminate key information. In certain kinds of crisis, for example, the one we are facing now in the face of the Corona Pandemic, initial information is key.
During the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, governments decided to control information. This was the period around world war one. Leaders thought they need to boost confidence by hiding the real proportion of the problem. In the case of USA President, Woodrow Wilson did not release public statement. Surgeon General Rupert Blue stated there is no cause for Alarm. In fact, a military parade was allowed in Philadelphia, this resulted in the state being the worst affected with about 16000 deaths.
Therefore it is important to communicate early and honestly. You need to be as transparent as possible.
Once you have ascertained the right thing to do, do not wait.
Your team looks up to you. A vacuum is more likely to be filled with negative information over positive. Get your team updated. During a crisis, the team wants to hear from the boss.
Prepare a dedicated channel of information for employees and make sure that you share updates at least every other day. The more time there is between updates the more space for speculation will be created, remember you want to manage and control the situation.
Make sure the information is precise and concise. Next steps are very important, this helps way with the feeling of uncertainty. Tell your employees about what you are going to do next. Equally important is to inform them what they can do. Anxiety breaks in far too easily if there is an atmosphere of uncertainty.
Next steps are important
In the digital age where false news is easy to form, you must take clear steps to avoid miss-communication or ambiguity.
Although transparency and clarity will resolve largely, however, certain tactical steps need to be taken.
There should be a dedicated channel of information. You have to assign one person to speak out. All statements must be also in the written form and recorded. Ensure that the written statements are made available easily to the audiences, especially the press.
Communicating with the Customers
Trust is the toughest factor to gain and the easiest to lose. Do not try to sell during crisis communication. Share information that is customer-centric and beneficial to them. Figure what you can do for your customers. What you can do to help them and protect them. Relationships forged during a crisis can last a lifetime. Make sure your efforts are in the long term interest.
In 1982 Tylenol an over the counter drug sold by Johnson and Johnson was found to be the cause of death in about 7 cases. It was soon realised that the packaging was tampered with and cyanide was added. Not only did Johnson and Johnson redesigned a tamper-proof packaging but they also recalled millions of pack from the market. Though they suffered losses initially but eventually owing to quick action, timely information dissemination they were able to regain the trust of their customers. Till today no one knows who was behind these poisonings.
The above story reminds us of the importance of credible, tangible action, sometimes mere action is not sufficient. Johnson and Johnson did not approach the solution as a cost but rather investment to save a very important portfolio.
Reach out to your stakeholders
Keep your stakeholders informed at every important step of the way. You may need their support with key decisions. Transparency will help you gain confidence. By sharing information with your stakeholders you will build a sense of involvement. When people feel involved their propensity to help is higher.
Organisations should always remember that humans are the ultimate denominator. While businesses need to be objective but community involvement remains an important market of trust. Companies can no longer count on building a brand merely through advertisement. Especially in a crisis situation, an organisation need to express tangible solidarity with the community.
Small gestures of contribution could go a long way. If you have the CSR budget this is the time to deploy.
Ultimately empathy will become your greatest tool. Companies sometimes do the greatest mistake of sounding as if they are addressing robots and not humans. While it is important to ensure that you are legally in the right but it must not stop you from sounding human.