Part 1: Crisis comms tips – surviving not sinking

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My career started at WorldPay before and through the internet bubble of the 1990s working with media, merchants (retailers) and consumers to convince them that internet payments were the future and safe. I then spent many years working for tech companies helping money cross borders, currencies and formats, including virtual wallets. As a result, there were many opportunities to experience and observe crisis communications and what happens when you find yourself in the eye of a storm.

These are my top tips for today – others will follow to hopefully help us respond and survive these unique and challenging times.

Don’t rush a response – set a realistic expectation

Ideally, a crisis comms plan is created before a crisis hits. But, if you’re reading this during the Coronavirus pandemic, that option has probably already vanished. So, pause and take stock. Even a persistent journalist on the phone (and they are still very rare unless you’re a FTSE 250) can be told that you’ll call back in 30 minutes.

You need time to think – brand values, perspectives and audiences are complex, and you need time to think your response through.

  • If you have online chat or other digital channels where a more immediate response is expected, add a banner or equip your front line staff with a standard but informative holding statement such as ‘At this difficult time for everyone, we are working hard to maintain our service levels and respond to a much higher than normal level of enquiries. As such, we aim to answer all queries within X hours / by the following day.’
Define (narrow) discussion parameters

Before you issue an official company statement, or answer concerned customer queries, find out what the specific question they want answered is. Even a journalist will appreciate that if you know what area they want to discuss, you will bring a better answer and more ability to discuss it.

If you have time, try the answer out on a couple of trusted allies – you can ask them to put themselves in the shoes of your audience, e.g. customers and to give you their honest feedback. You might be aiming for empathy but end up sounding insincere, or going for sympathy and end up sounding disconnected and selfish. Empower them to give you honest feedback – much better they tell you with time to change the external message than you misstep in a public forum.

Establish a process with a comms leader

Find someone in your business with good emotional intelligence, English and project management skills. Then tell everyone else in the company that external questions from the media or customers are to be referred to them in the first instance.

It may absolutely make sense for a line manager or relevant department head to be copied (Customer services director for example) but a single co-ordinator needs to have a complete view of the competing queries and required responses.

Let me know if these would be on your crisis comms tip list, or if you have specific questions or a need for advice please email me at [email protected].

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