Communicating During a Crisis? Ask Yourself These 4 Things

In a time when much of our world is changing, some things remain constant. Typically speaking, crisis communications is a profession most consciously choose. And yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many communications professionals to switch gears to a crisis communications role nearly overnight.  

With many organizations trying to communicate effectively amidst a crisis significantly impacting their customers, stakeholders, and operations, this role has become especially vital. For those of you who are new to this role, you may be feeling a little uncertain of how to proceed. Take a deep breath, and then consult your organization’s communications strategy.  

Even if your organization doesn’t have a formal crisis communications strategy, if your digital strategy is structured to be flexible in times of uncertainty, it will be a sufficient guide. Answering the questions below will help you adapt your strategy to support you and your team now and in the coming days.  

What Is Your Existing Communications Strategy? 

A good strategy should originate from a place of curiosity and empathy. A human-centered design approach ensures alignment with your audience’s needs. Return to those core elements now—let curiosity and empathy be your guides. 

A well-formed digital strategy will include elements like mission and objectives, brand and voice, governance, audience insights, content and channels, and measurement. During times of crisis the strategy’s foundation should remain intact, though it may be worth revisiting certain details to determine whether they require adjustments to suit the current environment.  

How Can You Achieve Meaningful Engagement With Your Audiences?

Engagement is the mutual exchange of value, and relationships require continuous deposits to the equity bank over time. Think about how your organization can add meaning and value in today’s context. What was meaningful and valuable before the crisis emerged may not be viewed in the same way now. 

Who you are, how you “show up,” clarity and consistency of voice, and creativity all play into a proper brand strategy. Brand affinity is not only of concern to popular consumer brands—and it’s seldom achieved during a crisis. The public sector and smaller organizations are more likely to overlook or undervalue a brand strategy, but even subconsciously, it can pay dividends in long-term customer engagement and trust.  

What Is Your Message, and Which Channels Should You Share It On?  

During my career as a spokesperson and digital strategist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I communicated through the first known case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow” disease) in the United States, foodborne illness outbreaks, and natural disasters.  

As new digital channels emerged and the public became increasingly media-savvy, it became clear that the traditional means of communicating were no longer sufficient. Adding social media and official blogs to our strategy allowed us to build deeper relationships and trust with our stakeholders over time. These established bonds were critical when a crisis emerged. 

Digital and social media channels are powerful message multipliers and can quickly scale intimacy. This is especially important when analog marketing methods are not feasible.  

Remember: a human-centered strategy uses channels, messages, creativity, and tactics designed specifically to meet audiences where they are—physically and mentally—at any given time. Take a look at your content calendar or pre-scheduled, automated social media posts for content you’ll need to revise to be appropriate during a crisis. Planned content may not be relevant or appropriate in the same way—and you don’t want to be the organization making people cringe from an ill-timed or tone-deaf post.    

People want to feel connected during a time of crisis. Any organization can achieve this with authentic and well-intentioned content. Don’t try on a new persona or identity in the midst of a crisis.  

How Do You Adjust Your Strategy? 

A human-centered approach regularly tests and iterates based on user behavior. Analytics assessments can help fine tune your digital strategy to continue meeting users where they are, and provide content and services that are important to them at any given time. If you don’t already, dig into your website and social media analytics to see how users are discovering, engaging with, and sharing your content. Learn from those lessons and adjust your future strategy accordingly.  

Changes to the way we work are expected during times of crisis. Established operating procedures may no longer be “standard.” Maintain open lines of communication with your team and among internal partners or external service providers. Attend to details like making sure your servers can handle traffic surges or that your team can access your website content management system or social media accounts remotely.  

Ready to Begin? 

As you begin to adjust your communications plan during the COVID-19 crisis—and prepare for any future crises—remember this: the best strategy is a modified version of your existing strategy. Return to that foundational strategy. Hold close to the messages, tactics, and channels that remain true to your core mission and the needs of your users. One more piece of time-tested advice before you dig into your newfound role as crisis communicator: When in doubt, don’t.  

Do you have a tried and true crisis communications tip you’d like to share? Share it with us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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