- LEADING EFFECTIVELY ARTICLE
Communicating in a Crisis: What, When, and How
Crisis Management Communication Tips for Leaders
During a crisis like the current pandemic and its economic aftermath, you’re undoubtedly dealing with some level of “information overload.” From the barrage of news updates to the endless torrent of communications from brands about how they’re dealing, to the best efforts of governments and health officials to provide accurate guidance, it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed.
Out of all the information, data, and speculation being thrown around, how do you decide what, when, and how to communicate with your team and organization?
Leaders around the world must know how to lead through a crisis and are seeking best practices for communicating in a crisis.
At CCL, we consider communication one of the essential functions of a leader. In fact, it’s one of the “Fundamental 4” leadership skills we’ve found through our research that every leader, regardless of level, needs to master in order to succeed and thrive.
Since it’s a fundamental skill, communication is always important for leaders , but during a crisis, communication is critical.
People are thirsty for information. They want to know the current state of things, what’s being done to keep the situation from getting worse, and when everything will be getting back to normal. And the pressure on leaders to provide impactful guidance and information is especially heightened in a crisis situation.
Here are some practical tips on what, when, and how to communicate in a crisis to help you connect with your team and organization at a time when stress is high and there’s a lot at stake.
Communicating in a Crisis: Tips for Leaders
Best practices on what to communicate in crisis situations, deliver essential information in a quick, clear, and transparent manner..
People are overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at them. They’re on the lookout for essential information that can help them get through this crisis, but they’re also under tremendous pressure at work and at home, and they don’t have time to digest it all.
Focus on essential information and embrace brevity. Share what you know when you know it. Also, be honest — this is not the time to equivocate and fall back on corporate speak.
Share what you don’t know, in addition to what you do know.
No one has all the answers right now. But acting like you do will damage your credibility and your ability to connect with your people. Be honest and embrace the ambiguity of the situation, but also share what you’re able to. People will appreciate and resonate with honest, direct messaging.
Make it clear what people can look to for stability and guidance.
In a moment where it seems like everything is shifting and up for grabs, let others know what remains stable. Clarify and emphasize what’s bedrock and unchanging. For many organizations, this might include their vision, mission, and values.
Helping employees see how difficult decisions are being made with the organization’s values as guideposts can reassure them that there’s a “method to the madness.” Reinforcing core commitments like “how we can make a positive impact” and “why we’re doing this in the first place” can instill meaning and purpose during a time of struggle.
Best Practices on When to Communicate in a Crisis
Communicate broadly, repeatedly, and through multiple means..
To stand out above the noise, don’t just rely on one particular medium or platform. Remember the 3 R’s: review, repeat, and reinforce.
If information is shared only once (or through one medium), you cannot be sure that everyone has received it — or if they did, that they understand it.
Take the extra time to review information with your team, to repeat the information to help it sink in, and to reinforce the key points of your information with additional context or guidance. If in doubt, err on the side of over-communicating and sounding redundant, rather than under-communicating and running the risk of people not hearing or understanding your message.
Explain before questions and concerns are submitted, when possible.
During a crisis, people can be so overwhelmed with just getting through their lives that they may not have the capacity to reach out with questions and concerns. Taking the initiative to connect with your team and answer the questions they likely have will show them that you’re on the front line dealing with the crisis and that you’re willing to support them. Of course, you should also provide a space for your team members to share their concerns and ask questions that haven’t been answered.
Share with others after you’ve taken care of yourself.
This may sound selfish, but it’s extremely difficult to lead others if you’re not in a good place yourself.
Take care of yourself, making time for your wellness , being kind to yourself through constructive self-talk , building awareness of distorted thought patterns and rumination , or just taking some time to be patient with how you’re feeling right now.
If you can get yourself in a better place, you’ll be more able to help and lead others effectively.
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Best Practices for the How of Communicating in a Crisis
Embrace the full range of emotions you and others are experiencing right now, and be transparent about how the current challenges are impacting you. Demonstrating vulnerability can help generate trust between you and others, especially in a difficult situation. You can further improve your ability to connect by pausing before giving feedback on an employee’s performance to ask how they’re doing. A powerful question to ask your team is “What dominant emotion are you experiencing right now?” This will likely lead to a much richer conversation than simply asking how they’re doing.
Connecting on a human level communicates care, reduces the threat response, and encourages neuroplasticity — critical fundamentals for healthy teams, creative problem solving and innovation, and sustainable performance, particularly under stress.
Get eyeball to eyeball.
With all the technology currently available, there’s no excuse to not at least occasionally connect with your team on video. There’s a qualitative difference in the communication that occurs. You’ll not only be able to read emotions through facial expressions and body language, but you’ll also gain insights that will allow you to connect on a more personal level when you notice a pet or family member wandering by in the background. This is a key best practice for virtual teams and meetings .
Listen to understand.
Don’t start by trying to solve people’s problems right away. Take a wider lens. When you actively listen to your people , pay attention to the facts, feelings, and values they’re expressing. By starting with understanding, you can get the whole message and help others feel heard.
Sometimes that’s all that’s needed — as a leader your job isn’t always to solve problems but sometimes to just sit back and listen. Also, be prepared to deal with conflict and negative emotions — people deal with crisis situations differently, so be patient, listen, and respond to your people with grace.
Focus on the person, not the problem.
Even when it’s your intent to help others with their problems, avoid the impulse to jump in with your own solutions. Instead, try to hold coaching conversations with your people — asking thought-provoking questions that help surface their understanding and insight to help them come up with their own solutions. This gives others a sense of empowerment during a time when they may be feeling powerless.
Trying to solve everyone’s problems for them during a crisis is an express lane to your own burnout. That helps no one.
Communicating in Times of Crisis – and Beyond
Focusing on improving communication within your organization will not only help you through the current crisis but will also help you navigate the changed future that comes next. And with a strong set of crisis communication skills established, your people will be able to focus on executing the actions that lead to the greatest impact and move your organization forward.
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Article • 9 min read
Communicating in a Crisis
Don’t shut down communication.
By the Mind Tools Content Team
When a crisis or some other adverse situation occurs, the natural instinct is to close ranks, work furiously to contain the damage, and set the situation back to normal.
We go into protection mode – for both our organization and ourselves. However, this approach can go badly wrong.
We've all seen major companies terribly wounded when the press senses a "cover up." And we may also have seen situations where gossip has spiraled out of control with damaging results.
When official communication channels are shut down, communication does not stop. In fact, it can often increase. The problem is that this communication can be full of rumor, innuendo, inconsistencies, half truths, and exaggerations. More than this, the trust and confidence of employees and clients can be undermined, with often-damaging long term consequences.
This is where the best thing to do in a crisis can be to communicate the facts and issues surrounding them clearly, quickly, and consistently.
On one hand, life is full of ups and downs, and you'll look silly and out of control if you are often conducting crisis communication. Also, you need to be careful about communicating information that can itself damage you.
On the other hand, trust is essential in business. If people feel that you, your brand or your company can no longer be trusted, this can be fatal for your business. Customers may prefer to go to a more trustworthy competitor. Teamwork may break down. Employees may move jobs. And people will be more cautious in dealing with you, raising the costs of doing business.
Staying in Control
What's important in a crisis is to stay in control of communication. These five Cs of communication that can help when communicating bad news:
- Concerns: focus attention on the needs and concerns of the audience. Don't make the message focused on you or on damage control. Where appropriate, acknowledge the concerns of the people and deal with them directly.
- Clarity: where possible, leave no room for improper assumptions or best guesses. The clearer your message is, the more people will believe you are disclosing everything they need to know. When communication is vague it implies that you are hiding something or only revealing partial truths.
- Control: remain in control of what is being said. When you lose control of the message there is no stopping the flow of inaccurate information. Your whole communication plan needs to center on remaining in control.
- Confidence: your message and delivery must assure your listeners that the actions you are taking are in everyone's best interests. It's one thing to deliver bad news openly, and it's another to effectively convey that you are doing everything you can to minimize the negative impact. Speak with confidence but don't lose sight of your humanity – acknowledge that you can't make everything ok, but make sure people know you're doing your best.
- Competence: convey the notion that you are able to handle the situation and that you have the advice and support of many people (and, of course, make sure that you do). When you use the 5 Cs you assure people that you are competent to handle the situation and that you are not being deceitful in any way. This reinforces people's belief in your ability to manage the situation the best way you know how.
By using the 5 Cs you contain the message of what you want said. If people are getting adequate, honest, and open information from you then they are less inclined to go searching for their own version of the truth.
Practicing Crisis Communication
These guidelines can help when communicating in the midst of a crisis or when anticipating a crisis will happen.
Develop a Crisis Communication Plan
As a matter of routine, identify risks, prepare for worst case scenarios, run "what if" analyzes, and choose the set of actions that address your stakeholders' needs most effectively. If you've done this contingency planning in advance, when a crisis does occur, you'll have well thought-through responses already in place.
Use a Crisis Communication Team
Establish a crisis communication team if risks are serious or communication needs are significant. This team should consist of high-level officials in the organization. Their role is to assess the nature and scope of the situation by consulting with others as required.
Appoint a Spokesperson
This person should be chosen from those who have the most direct knowledge of the situation – typically the highest-ranking person of the group. The more direct involvement the spokesperson has, the higher his or her credibility, which enhances the confidence and competence factors for effective bad-news communication.
If your spokesperson is likely to face the media , make sure, if you can, that the spokesman has had interview training well in advance, and that he or she has rehearsed key messages and answers to likely questions (see below).
Create a Sheet of Facts
Draft a summary statement that includes all the appropriate details. Balance the information with respect to the stakeholders' right to know and the company's needs for privacy. This sheet is used to ensure the messages you give are consistently accurate.
Establish Your Key Message
Decide the most important message you want to convey. Tailor the rest of your communication around this message. Make sure that the key message has the right tone and provides the right context for delivering the message.
Before you finalize your key message try to think of all the questions you will get and address as many of them as you can in your communication package.
Determine the Communication Channels
Decide how you are going to convey your message:
- What needs to be told in person – either live or through a media channel?
- If you choose to use the media, how will this be coordinated?
- Do you want to use a press conference?
- Do you need a crisis hotline?
- Consider using your website as well as email and social media channels to deliver messages quickly and efficiently.
- Advise your switchboard on how to handle inquiries.
- Determine how/if phones and faxes will be used.
- Establish other communication channels as required – meetings, advertisements, and so on.
Coordinate Your Internal and External Communication
A good communications plan will release information to the media, employees, and other stakeholders at the same time. If that is not possible, ensure that your employees and other prime stakeholders find out directly from you first.
Don't Withhold Information That You Intend to Share
If you can, tell all the bad news, all at once. If you give it in spurts it can look like you're hiding things and not being totally honest. This doesn't mean you have to reveal everything: It means you have to reveal all that you need to reveal right from the start.
Be Up-Front at All Times
If you can't go into detail on something, be honest and say that you can't discuss that information at this time. If you don't know something, be honest about that too.
Try to see the situation from the audience's point of view. Deliver the message with the same sensitivity you would appreciate if you were in their position. Use humble, personal language and acknowledge the emotional elements involved in the situation. Try to emphasize the positive without minimizing the negative.
This is the hardest rule to follow. For the sake of everyone hearing the message, keep as calm as possible. You need to convey control, confidence, and competence.
Our Expert Interview with Kathy McKee on Leading People Through Disasters has further tips and advice on communicating effectively in a crisis.
Communicating during a crisis often requires candid and timely communication. Failure to communicate can severely damage trust, and can lead to rumors running out of control.
In order to remain in control, you need to deliver accurate and comprehensive messages to your stakeholders. Be prepared with a communications plan and deliver your messages calmly and confidently – your audience will appreciate your honesty and the situation will be handled much more smoothly because of it.
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A leader’s guide: Communicating with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19
This article is part of a series Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges . It draws together McKinsey’s collective thinking and expertise on five behaviors to help leaders navigate the pandemic and recovery. Separate articles describe organizing via a network of teams ; displaying deliberate calm and bounded optimism ; making decisions amid uncertainty ; and demonstrating empathy .
Crises come in different intensities. As a “landscape scale” event, 1 Herman B. Leonard, “Against desperate peril: High performance in emergency preparation and response,” in Communicable Crises: Prevention, Response, and Recovery in the Global Arena , Deborah E. Gibbons, ed., Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007. the coronavirus has created great uncertainty, elevated stress and anxiety, and prompted tunnel vision, in which people focus only on the present rather than toward the future. During such a crisis, when information is unavailable or inconsistent, and when people feel unsure about what they know (or anyone knows), behavioral science points to an increased human desire for transparency, guidance, and making sense out of what has happened.
At such times, a leader’s words and actions can help keep people safe, help them adjust and cope emotionally, and finally, help them put their experience into context—and draw meaning from it. But as this crisis leaps from life-and-death direction on public health and workplace safety to existential matters of business continuity, job loss, and radically different ways of working, an end point may not be apparent. While some may already be seeking meaning from the crisis and moving into the “ next normal ,” others, feeling rising uncertainty and worried about the future, may not yet be ready for hope.
COVID-19’s parallel unfolding crises present leaders with infinitely complicated challenges and no easy answers. Tough trade-offs abound, and with them, tough decisions about communicating complex issues to diverse audiences. Never have executives been put under such an intense spotlight by a skeptical public gauging the care, authenticity, and purpose that companies demonstrate. Leaders lack a clear playbook to quickly connect with rattled employees and communities about immediate matters of great importance, much less reassure them as they ponder the future.
Against this frenzied backdrop, it would be easy for leaders to reflexively plunge into the maelstrom of social-media misinformation, copy what others are doing, or seek big, one-off, bold gestures. It is also true that crises can produce great leaders and communicators, those whose words and actions comfort in the present, restore faith in the long term, and are remembered long after the crisis has been quelled.
So we counsel this: pause, take a breath. The good news is that the fundamental tools of effective communication still work. Define and point to long-term goals, listen to and understand your stakeholders, and create openings for dialogue. Be proactive. But don’t stop there. In this crisis leaders can draw on a wealth of research, precedent, and experience to build organizational resilience through an extended period of uncertainty, and even turn a crisis into a catalyst for positive change. Superior crisis communicators tend to do five things well:
- Give people what they need, when they need it. People’s information needs evolve in a crisis. So should a good communicator’s messaging. Different forms of information can help listeners to stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.
- Communicate clearly, simply, frequently. A crisis limits people’s capacity to absorb information in the early days. Focus on keeping listeners safe and healthy. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Choose candor over charisma. Trust is never more important than in a crisis. Be honest about where things stand, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and maintain transparency to build loyalty and lead more effectively.
- Revitalize resilience. As the health crisis metastasizes into an economic crisis, accentuate the positive and strengthen communal bonds to restore confidence.
- Distill meaning from chaos. The crisis will end. Help people make sense of all that has happened. Establish a clear vision, or mantra, for how the organization and its people will emerge.
Give people what they need, when they need it
Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages. In a recent article, our colleagues framed the COVID-19 crisis in five stages : resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. These stages span the crisis of today to the next normal that will emerge after COVID-19 has been controlled. The duration of each stage may vary based on geographic and industry context, and organizations may find themselves operating in more than one stage simultaneously (exhibit).
With such variation in mind, communicators should be thoughtful about what matters most in the given moment.
Every crisis has a life cycle, and emotional states and needs vary with the cycle’s stages.
- In a crisis’s early stages, communicators must provide instructing information to encourage calm; how to stay safe is fundamental. In COVID-19, governments and major media outlets first focused on clear, simple instructions about physical distancing and “lockdown” guidelines. Companies focused on new operational rules regarding time off, overtime, and operational changes.
- As people begin to follow safety instructions, communication can shift to a focus on adjusting to change and uncertainty. Asia, where COVID-19 struck early, offers some helpful insights. One survey in China, for example, showed that a marked decline in people’s energy during the early stages of the epidemic reversed as they acclimated to increased anxiety and the blurring of work- and home-life boundaries. 2 McKinsey surveyed senior executives of large Chinese companies, along with employees from those organizations, in eight industries, from March 12–18, 2020; 1,300 people responded to the survey. Savvy communications directors responded by evolving their messaging from health basics to business recovery.
- Finally, as the crisis’s end comes into view, ramp up internalizing information to help people make sense of the crisis and its impact. For the current public-health crisis, it’s still too early to glean the shape of this broader perspective, although “silver lining” articles about families drawing closer together and other topics have been making their way into the media.
Want to know what people need? Ask them.
Standard tools and serendipitous conversations and moments of connection can help leaders check in on their people:
Schedule unstructured time. Add 15 to 30 minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting to tap into what’s on employees’ minds.
Run a quick pulse survey. Ask one simple question: How are you feeling? Include a comments box for elaborating.
Invite input on big decisions. When possible, include people in the process of choosing paths forward. Offer options. Community dialogue can shape the right decision.
Use digital and analytics tools. Two-way listening solutions enable employees to share concerns over email or text. Natural-language software then produces major themes for managers to review, act on, and monitor.
Host “well-being check-ins.” Schedule time for people to come together. These sessions can host up to 150 people at a time. Breakout features in some apps can create smaller groups for more in-depth conversation.
Solicit questions. When preparing town halls, give employees a chance to submit questions in advance (anonymously is ideal). Or offer the community the option to “vote up” the questions they most want answered. Use chat functionality to allow questions.
Engage change agents. If you’ve identified influencers or change agents, deploy them. Provide forums for them to hear from peers. Adjust your communications to reflect this new input.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a complex crisis made up of multiple trigger points—health, policy, the economy—and leaders should tailor their communications to the stage of the crisis their stakeholders are experiencing, and to what people need most in the moment (see sidebar, “Want to know what people need? Ask them”). 3 Adapted from David L Sturges’s seminal 1994 work on crisis communication, “Communicating through crisis: A strategy for organizational survival,” Management Communication Quarterly , February 1, 1994, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp. 297–316. Scenario planning becomes important to help anticipate where employees and communities may be in dealing with the crisis, and the appropriate messaging that can help them as the crisis unfolds.
Communicate clearly, simply, frequently
At a crisis’s onset, audience attention is finite; new, disruptive inputs overwhelm a person’s ability to process information. High levels of uncertainty, perceived threats, and fear can even lead to “cognitive freezing.” 4 A body of research shows that people generally suffer from information overload; for more, see Martin J. Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, “The concept of information overload: A review of literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines,” Information Society , 2004, Volume 20, Number 5. Put simply: the more complicated, abstract, or extraneous information is right now, the more difficult it will be for people to process it.
Leaders may be inclined to defer to governments and media outlets for clear and simple safety instructions. Don’t. Employers often underestimate how much their employees depend on them as trusted sources. When public-relations firm Edelman asked workers in ten countries what they considered the most credible source of information about the coronavirus, 63 percent of respondents said that they would believe information about the virus from their employer, versus 58 percent that trusted government websites or 51 percent that trusted the traditional media. 5 Edelman trust barometer 2020 special report: Trust and the coronavirus , Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, 2020, edelman.com.
To convey crucial information to employees, keep messages simple, to the point, and actionable. Walmart published its 6-20-100 guidance: stand six feet away to maintain a safe physical distance, take 20 seconds for good hand washing, consider a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit the signal to stay home from public activity. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield focused on personal care in reassuring employees stressed over work. “We got this,” he said. “Take care of yourselves, take care of your families, be a good partner.” 6 Catherine Clifford, “CEO of multibillion-dollar company Slack to employees amid coronavirus: ‘Don’t stress about work,’” CNBC, March 26, 2020, cnbc.com.
When communicating clear, simple messages, framing and frequency matter:
Dos, not don’ts. People tend to pay more attention to positively framed information; negative information can erode trust. Frame instructions as “dos” (best practices and benefits) rather than “don’ts” (what people shouldn’t do, or debunking myths). 7 Building on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s seminal 1979 prospect theory, more recent research has examined the impact of highlighting gains and benefits when communicating health information. In previous epidemic outbreaks, such as Zika, yellow fever, and West Nile virus, research shows that interventions highlighting best practices were more effective than those focused on countering misinformation or conspiracies.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Communicators regularly underestimate how frequently messages must be repeated and reinforced. In a health crisis, repetition becomes even more critical: one study showed that an audience needs to hear a health-risk-related message nine to 21 times to maximize its perception of that risk. 8 Lu Liu, Xi Lu, and Xiaofei Xie, “Inverted U-shaped model: How frequent repetition affects perceived risk,” Judgment and Decision Making , 2015, Volume 10, Number 3. Fortunately, employee appetite for regular, trusted information from employers during COVID-19 is high. In one study, some 63 percent asked for daily updates and 20 percent wanted communications several times a day. 9 Edelman trust barometer 2020 special report: Trust and the coronavirus , Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, 2020, edelman.com. So, establish a steady cadence, repeat the same messages frequently, and try mantras, rhyming, and alliteration to improve message “stickiness.”
The CEO doesn’t have to be the chief delivery officer. During a crisis, it’s best if the message comes from the person viewed as an authority on the subject. For business continuity, that person may well be the CEO. But for other topics, people may prefer to hear from a health expert, the leader of the organization’s crisis-response team, or even their own manager. Provide common talking points for all leaders and empower communication—via town halls, through email, text messaging or internal social media platforms.
Choose candor over charisma
After establishing baseline safety requirements, leaders must help individuals cope emotionally with the trauma of sudden change and adjustment to a new, postcrisis normal. (COVID-19 threats to health and safety are likely to linger for some time, so new messages should be layered atop regular safety reminders.)
Leaders trying to help employees adjust after trauma need a reservoir of trust. Those who fail to build trust quickly in crises lose their employees’ confidence. People expect credible and relevant information; when stakeholders believe they are being misled or that risks are being downplayed, they lose confidence. To build trust, leaders should do the following:
Focus on facts—without sugar coating. Differentiate clearly between what is known and unknown, and don’t minimize or speculate. In crises like the one we’re facing now, “the facts” may include bad news about the state of the organization or changes that will be painful for people. Research shows that some leaders, used to feeling highly effective and in control, avoid acknowledging uncertainty and bad news because they find it stressful or guilt inducing, or they fear negative reactions from an audience. 10 Research shows that leaders are often uncomfortable giving bad news; for more, see Robert J. Bies, “The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis, Journal of Management , 2013, Volume 39, Number 1, pp. 136–62. But unfounded optimism can backfire. In 1990, during the United Kingdom’s mad-cow-disease crisis, a government minister fed his daughter a hamburger in front of TV cameras and declared that British beef had never been safer, despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than boost morale, this effort only further eroded public trust in the government’s response. 11 David Robson, “Covid-19: What makes a good leader during a crisis?,” BBC, March 27, 2020, bbc.com.
When you are not able to communicate with certainty—for example, about when physical distancing and travel restrictions will be lifted—avoid hard and fast estimates (for example, “There’s a 60 percent chance that we’ll be back to normal by September.”). Instead, be explicit that you’re sharing an opinion, acknowledge uncertainty, and give the criteria you will use to determine a course of action (“It’s my hope that we are back online in the fall; however, that is far from certain. We will be following government guidance when making decisions for our business.”)
Be transparent. Transparency builds trust. Research shows that transparent operations improve perceptions of trust and that communicators perceived to have good intentions are more likely to be trusted, even if their decisions ultimately turn out to be wrong. Give people a behind-the-scenes view of the different options you are considering. For example, many governments, including Canada and the Netherlands, have begun publishing extended timelines during which protective measures will be in place. Whether or not those timelines hold true, such difficult messages to deliver ultimately serve to build greater trust among listeners.
Involve your audience in decision making. When making operational decisions, involve stakeholders. For example, many universities have informed students that commencement this year will not take place as planned. Rather than canceling commencement outright, several universities have instead used short, simple communication to elicit students’ ideas for staging commencement differently, preserving some of commencement’s positive energy.
Demonstrate vulnerability. Judiciously share your own feelings and acknowledge the personal effects of emotional turmoil. Research shows that demonstrating vulnerability, such as grief over shared losses or authentic feelings about the impact of changes on employees, can help build trust.
Mind what you model. What you do matters as much as what you say in building trust, and scrutiny of leaders’ actions is magnified during a crisis. Recently, some leaders have been called out for setting “do as I say, not as I do” examples. Scotland’s chief medical officer resigned after public uproar when she was caught visiting her second home during lockdown. Hosting a videoconference from the office might seem like a good way to project normalcy—but won’t for those attending who are locked down at home.
As the COVID-19 health crisis turns into a lingering financial and economic crisis, uncertainty and doubt will challenge efforts to restore business confidence. Leaders will face a critical period in which they will need to instill resilience in people and tap sources of hope, trust, and optimism in order to unlock creativity and build momentum for the future. Channeling positive sentiments and encouraging a sense of broader community will be critical elements in building that momentum. 12 For more on positive psychology in the workplace, see Fred Luthan and Carolyn M. Youssef, “Positive organizational behavior in the workplace: The impact of hope, optimism, and resilience, Journal of Management , 2007, Volume 33, Number 5, pp. 774–800.
Celebrate the positives. Sharing positive stories and creating uplifting moments are important building blocks in reigniting resilient spirits. It may seem counterintuitive, but often this approach begins by acknowledging loss. Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis. However, it is possible to counterbalance the negative effects of stress and loss by channeling positive emotions.
Denying or averting loss can make it more likely that people focus on negatives, especially in times of crisis.
Highlight how your organization is responding to the crisis with stories about how people are adapting to new ways of working. Or recount how your organization is contributing to the global COVID-19 response. Show appreciation for the challenges people face. For example, the “Clap for our carers” movement in the United Kingdom is a public display of appreciation for the National Health Service (NHS), which is now being replicated every night at 7 p.m. in New York City. Many companies have posted videos on social media thanking their employees. Especially important is expressing gratitude to those in the organization who are leading frontline responses or who face threats to their safety. In addition to acknowledging them publicly, having one-on-one conversations with them or sending personal thank-you notes can go a long way toward making people feel part of something important and meaningful, which in turn helps build resilience.
Help people to help. Helping others is a great way to improve well-being and reduce stress. 13 Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success , New York: Viking, 2013. Amid crisis, people look for ways to contribute. For example, following the 9/11 attacks, Dell connected with employees by channeling their desire to offer help. Service and response teams worked around the clock, drawing on Dell’s customer purchase records, to offer customers immediate assistance in replacing lost computers and equipment. Such steps helped employees struggling with grief and anger to focus on others, give back, and link the customer’s experience to everyday work.
Build community. It’s important to rebuild a common social identity and a sense of belonging based on shared values, norms, and habits. 14 For more on leadership and shared identity, see S. Alexander Haslam, Michael J. Platow, and Stephen D. Reicher, “ The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power ,” Routledge, 2010. Research suggests that social bonds grow stronger during times of great uncertainty. Leaders encourage people to come together under common values of mutual support and achievement. Queen Elizabeth II has called upon all Britons to unify and identify—in discipline, resolve, and fellowship—in the face of COVID-19. “The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future,” she said. 15 “The Queen’s coronavirus speech transcript: ‘We will succeed and better days will come,’” Telegraph , April 5, 2020, telegraph.co.uk.
Any effort to create a shared social identity must be grounded in a sense of support for others. Practical ways to encourage this when people are working remotely include book clubs, pub quizzes, happy hours, exercise classes, chat groups, competitions, and so on. Complement this kind of broad outreach with one-to-one communication via phone, email, or video to individuals or small teams. Arrange a virtual breakfast, an end-of-week celebration, or even video “tours” of each other’s workspaces.
Out of chaos, meaning
As people adapt, effective leaders increasingly focus on helping people to make sense of events. 16 For more on sensemaking, including the importance of leadership, see Marlys Christianson and Sally Maitlis, “Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward,” Academy of Management Annals, 2014, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp. 57–125. The search for meaning is intrinsic to recovery from trauma and crisis. For many, the workplace is a powerful source of identity and meaning. Research has shown that meaning and associated well-being can explain up to 25 percent of performance. 17 Thomas A. Wright, “More than meets the eye: The role of employee well-being in organizational research,” Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work , Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 143–54, oxfordhandbooks.com. Leaders can shape a meaningful story for the organization and help people build their own stories, invoking common culture and values as touchstones for healing and strength. In their messaging, they underscore a shared sense of purpose, point to how the organization can rally at a generation-defining moment, and indicate new paths to the future.
Leaders can take the following steps to help people move from making sense of events to deriving meaning from them:
Set clear goals and ‘walk the talk.’ Early on, be clear about what your organization will achieve during this crisis. Set a memorable “mantra”—the two or three simple goals around which people should rally. Then take actions to realize those goals, because you communicate by what you do as much as by what you say. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, Best Buy has defined a dual goal to protect employees while serving customers who rely on the company for increasingly vital technology. The company has made clear that employees should only work when healthy, and that those who feel sick should stay at home, with pay. US stores have instituted “contactless” curbside service or free doorstep delivery. 18 “Best Buy committed to providing products people need,” Business Wire, March 21, 2020, businesswire.com.
Connect to a deeper sense of purpose. Explore ways to connect the disruption employees face to something bigger. For some organizations, this may dovetail with the goals of an ongoing transformation, such as serving customers in new ways. For others, meaning can be found in a deeper, more collective sense of purpose or mission. For example, the chief surgeon at one New York hospital closed an all-staff memo by reminding people that “[patients] survive because we don’t give up.” 19 Craig Smith, “COVID-19 Update from Dr. Smith,” Columbia University Irving Medical Center, March 27, 2020, columbiasurgery.org. In the United Kingdom, the government appeals to strong national sentiments with the simple message: “Stay home, protect the NHS [National Health Service], save lives.”
Foster organizational dialogue. While it’s important to shape a story of meaning for your organization, it’s equally important to create a space where others can do the same for themselves. Ask people what conclusions they are drawing from this crisis and listen deeply. Some possible questions: Have there been unexpected positive outcomes of this crisis for you? What changes have you made that you would like to keep once the crisis has ended?
The immediacy and uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis tempts leaders to “shoot from the hip” in communicating with anxious stakeholders or making strategic moves. Effective communicators will take a deep breath and remember the basics while acknowledging what is unique about this moment. Relying on these practices will help team members stay safe and infuse understanding and meaning in communities, helping to carry the organization through the pandemic with a renewed sense of purpose and trust.
Ana Mendy is a partner in McKinsey’s Southern California office, Mary Lass Stewart is an expert in the Chicago office, and Kate VanAkin is an expert in the London office.
The authors wish to thank Aaron De Smet, Wojciech Kurda, Carlos Miranda, Mihir Mysore, Joe Spratt, Mrinalini Reddy, and Andrew Samo for their contributions to this article.
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Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges
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5 Tips for Communicating with Employees During a Crisis
- Brooks Holtom,
- Amy C. Edmondson,
Based on a survey of more than 800 employees across 10 organizations.
To understand how leaders can communicate effectively during a crisis like the current one, the authors sent a 12-question assessment to employees in 10 for-profit, not-for-profit, and government organizations. Based on the 830 responses they received, they found five practices drive employee satisfaction with the organization’s overall interactions with them during the Covid-19 crisis. They include: communicate frequently, provide safe channels for giving feedback, help employees work at home effectively, address concerns about job security, and provide a plan for the future.
In these difficult times, we’ve made a number of our coronavirus articles free for all readers. To get all of HBR’s content delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Alert newsletter.
Every leader knows that communication during a crisis is critical. When leaders communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy , it helps people adjust to the constantly changing conditions crises bring. A tone of urgency encourages people to make quick decisions to mitigate harm. Transparency builds trust in leaders and conveys respect for employees by implicitly recognizing them as capable of coping with what is being shared. And showing empathy and conveying a compelling message of hope can foster resilience in facing the challenges that lie ahead.
- Brooks Holtom is professor of management and senior associate dean at Georgetown University.
- Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Her latest book is Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well (Atria Books, forthcoming in September 2023).
- David Niu is the CEO of TINYpulse.
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When a crisis situation arises, it’s important to have a plan of action for properly handling business communications.
Having a crisis communication strategy is essential in today’s highly connected world, where a public relations disaster could be just one social media post away. According to research by PWC , nearly 69% of leaders have experienced at least one corporate crisis from 2014 to 2019, with an average of three crises per company.
While some PR crises are avoidable, these situations can often happen outside of a brand’s control, so it’s important to have a plan for managing them.
“In the 24-hour media world, the question is no longer will you face a crisis but when will you face one?” said Josh Wilson, a publicist at Otter Public Relations . “Your ability to navigate a crisis successfully will have everything to do with how well you have planned and the people you place on your crisis team.”
Here’s what you need to know about crisis communication management, including some best practices to follow as a small business owner.
[Read more: How to Promote Your Business on Instagram During a Crisis ]
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication is the strategy and execution of communication between an entity and its stakeholders before, during and after a negative event. Many think that crisis communication is reactive, but managing a crisis properly also requires a proactive process of constantly updating materials, messages and distribution channels to mitigate confusion, outrage or panic if and when a crisis occurs. If planned and executed correctly, a good crisis management strategy can save a company’s reputation.
In the 24-hour media world, the question is no longer will you face a crisis but when will you face one?
Josh Wilson, publicist at Otter Public Relations
Best practices for crisis communication
Develop a plan before you need it.
According to Wilson, the No. 1 crisis communication mistake small businesses make is failing to plan. A crisis communication plan acts as a blueprint for leaders to guide their company through any negative situation.
“The best way to plan is to actually take a potential crisis and map out how you would respond,” Wilson told CO—. “Outline every step you would take to handle the problem from start to finish and both internally and externally. Having clear, written guidelines for your company and its employees are important.”
Respond in a timely manner
While you don’t want to make any rash, emotionally charged statements that haven’t been thought through, it is important to develop a message to address a crisis as soon as possible after it occurs.
“When a crisis strikes, it is important to have a timely response,” Wilson said. “Make sure that you take time to research the crisis and develop a clear plan for managing it.”
Having a plan in place will help with timely communication — as would a dedicated crisis management team.
Delegate responsibilities and minimize miscommunication
Leaders can easily get overwhelmed during a crisis, said Wilson, which is why it’s important to delegate the execution of your crisis communication plan.
“Make sure you delegate key responsibilities to a small, trusted group of people,” he added.
As you delegate, appoint one person to be the consistent voice who speaks on behalf of your company throughout the crisis, rather than several different people attempting to be spokespeople, Wilson said.
[Read more: How to Use Facebook to Connect with Your Customers in Times of Crisis ]
Consult legal and crisis management professionals
Trying to handle a crisis on your own may land you in some legal trouble, so it’s wise to have a legal professional on standby before you issue any communications to the public.
“Leaders should never tackle a crisis without having solid advice from a legal team,” Wilson said. “Every crisis team should consult with a lawyer to make sure you are not making the problem worse with your response.”
Wilson also advised seeking professional help from seasoned crisis managers, who can help make sure you and your team are ready when a situation arises.
Prioritize your team
It’s easy to devote all your attention to the media or external stakeholders during a crisis, but you should also ensure you’re communicating with your internal team, said Wilson. Your employees should be prioritized during a crisis, he said, as they can become extremely powerful messengers for you.
“Make sure your employees feel safe, valued and informed,” Wilson explained. “Trust is key during difficult situations and you must maintain the trust of your employees. Complete transparency in your organization prevents finger-pointing during a crisis.”
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6 Effective Strategies for Communication in a Crisis
Table of contents.
In today’s ever-changing, fast-paced, social media-hungry world, a crisis is inevitable. During one, it’s vital that you provide your stakeholders, employees and customers with a clear, heartfelt message. The speed and sincerity of your response can be the difference between your company moving forward or dangerously backward.
By preplanning your crisis communication, you can increase your chances of success in overcoming public relations nightmares . Proactively preparing your leadership and employees for a downturn can decrease anxiety and foster confidence.
Whether your crisis is caused by natural, financial, personnel, organizational or technological issues, we have provided our top six effective crisis communication strategies.
Effective strategies for crisis communication
1. prepare a crisis communication plan..
Although crises often come unexpectedly, you can prepare by creating a crisis communication plan and a crisis management team. Generally, the plan should include the following information:
- Members of your crisis management team
- Who your target audiences are
- Numbered steps to take when a crisis emerges
- How to communicate with the public, such as on your social media channels and in your published content or official statements
- How to prevent the issues from happening or (in the case of natural crises) at least from hurting your company
You can draft your organization’s unique crisis communication plan or download templates from online resources. Even if you use a sample template, you’ll need to customize your plan based on your business’ needs and crisis type.
For example, how you communicate with customers during a natural disaster , such as a global health crisis like COVID-19, will differ from how you publicly address an organizational crisis like issues with your products or services.
It’s also vital to define who will be on your crisis management team. These people will work together to analyze the situation, identify possible solutions and communicate with the key audiences.
When a crisis hits, it’s understandable that tensions run high. Once a crisis plan is created , condense it to bullet points and/or single-digit steps. The edited plan provides clear, digestible instructions that can quickly be shared across teams.
2. Put the customer first.
A crisis usually brings up strong negative emotions. If your company makes mistakes, your unhappy customers may write negative comments on review sites like Yelp, Google or on social media.
When this happens, don’t play the blame game. Try to foster a supportive and collaborative attitude rather than a defensive communication climate on your social media, including your company blog.
There are productive ways to respond to unhappy customers if you see negative comments on your social media pages. These are some possible responses:
- Offer discounts for a future purchase of your products or services.
- Contact the customer directly to apologize.
- Change the policy that caused the issue.
- Offer a refund.
The research findings suggest that changing corporate policy is the response most customers prefer. Try to find a solution by communicating with your customers. This open communication will help you solve the problems, reduce the negative impact and restore your brand image.
3. Communicate with the public quickly and accurately.
Inaccurate information can cause more harm and make your target audience panic in a crisis. Ensure all information and supporting materials you post on your website, social media or provide to journalists as public responses are accurate.
Provide updates constantly to reduce uncertainty, anxiety and rumors. If possible, designate a single spokesperson for your company. All the information you send out via different channels ― mass media, social media and your company website ― must be honest, open, transparent and consistent. [Read related article: 7 Essential Components of Excellent Customer Service ]
4. Take advantage of all communication channels.
Communicate with your audience via multiple channels, such as email, text, a toll-free customer service phone number, voicemail, your website and social media.
Provide updates not only online but also via traditional channels. For instance, update your voicemail message and put a sign on the door of the store if you need to close or change your hours.
Some companies are still operating using a different model, such as selling products online or telemedicine for medical appointments. Notify your customers about any changes or new options in your service.
Your office or store may be closed, but you should still check its voicemail and return your customers’ calls. For example, a customer may have ordered a product from you before the crisis but can’t pick it up because your store is closed. In this case, they may call, email or text you, so keep an eye on all these channels and respond to them.
5. Use social media as a crisis communication tool.
Social media is widely used as a crisis communication tool. For example, many organizations use Twitter to communicate with their customers during a crisis. You can post company updates and notifications on Twitter as often as necessary. Your audience can retweet and respond to you and other Twitter users.
In addition to social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, you can use your company blog as a crisis communication tool. While it’s an essential trend for organizations to use social media as a crisis communication tool, each crisis is different. Consider the nature of the crisis and situation to choose the appropriate communication channels and messages.
6. Conduct post-crisis evaluation and follow-up communication.
Usually, the intensity of a crisis diminishes over time. When a crisis is over, you can evaluate how your company handled it. These are some questions you could ask yourself and your team:
- What strengths did we show during this time?
- What weaknesses were exposed?
- How are we doing now?
- What could we do differently next time we’re in a crisis?
If you evaluate your performance and responses during the crisis, you can learn from the experience and better prepare for the future. You may also need to do some reputation repair and follow-up communication. [Read related article: Online Reputation Management, and Why It Is Important ]
If you promised customers or the media to provide continuous updates on the recovery of your business, deliver on your promise. You can use social media and other channels, such as emails and your website, to keep your audience updated during the recovery stage.
Crisis communication can be challenging. It’s essential to be prepared , honest and responsive. Provide constant updates to your audience via multiple channels, effectively using social media as a communication tool. After the crisis settles, evaluate your crisis-time performance and follow up with your audience.
Crisis communication mistakes to avoid
Don’t skimp on leader education..
All critical business decisions require a strong leader . Leaders must reflect the company’s values and have vital emotional intelligence. Excelling in both can help them connect with their key audience in times of crisis.
By providing leaders with training from communication experts, you can minimize slow response times and misinformation, emote confidence and increase your chances of success after a crisis.
Don’t discount feedback.
Listening to company feedback from stakeholders, employees and customers allows you to understand your audience from a more profound emotional perspective. Sending out occasional surveys and polls through email and social media channels provides a baseline of what your followers value and expect from your company.
When a crisis hits, you can use this baseline data to understand how your target audience feels and what kind of solutions they expect. Such data is essential for resonating with your audience in everyday interactions and crises.
Having a clear understanding of your target audience can help prevent your company from sounding tone-deaf, under-communicating, over-communicating and using language nobody understands.
Don’t lose sight of your employees’ needs.
It’s common for companies to focus on external communication during a crisis. Businesses must quickly address stakeholders and their customer base to avoid a breakdown of loyalty and revenue.
However, do not forget to be transparent with your employees during the process. Uninformed employees can take the brunt of the stress and get overwhelmed quickly.
Take frequent assessments of your employees’ mental health and acknowledge their hard work and dedication to their role during this difficult time. Caring about your workforce encourages a positive company culture and helps propel your business forward.
Don’t be inconsistent.
Depending on the size of your business, you may have multiple leaders on damage control. All spokespeople must deliver the same message to prevent confusion and prolong the crisis.
Your target audience should be able to identify who’s in control. Consistent messaging should be transparent and genuine.
Don’t leave your audience hanging.
During a crisis, it can be difficult to inform everyone promptly. You should always provide a contact person, a responsible department or an online link to post information and updates.
However, don’t lean solely on one-stop-shop messaging. A crisis can be complex, and companies should be sensitive to stakeholders, employees and customers that have specific questions. Offer the resources and experts that are necessary to put everyone’s tensions at ease.
Ming-Yi Wu contributed to this article.
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8.7 Crisis Communications
A rumour that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents in several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address such risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen anyway. Employees also make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear response from a company’s standpoint. In this section we address the basics of a crisis communication plan, focusing on key types of information during an emergency:
- What is happening?
- Is anyone in danger?
- How big is the problem?
- Who reported the problem?
- Where is the problem?
- Has a response started?
- What resources are on-scene?
- Who is responding so far?
- Is everyone’s location known? (Mallet, Vaught, & Brinch, 1999)
You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.
A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. If an emergency arises when you already have a plan in place, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response. The plan should include four elements:
- Crisis communication team members with contact information
- Designated spokesperson
- Meeting place/location
- Media plan with procedures
A crisis communication team includes people who can decide what actions to take, carry out those actions, and offer expertise or education in the relevant areas. By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumours that can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.
Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communication and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and its facilities, the emergency plan may include exit routes, hazardous materials procedures (WHMIS), and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety is of course the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are, where they need to be, and where information is coming from.
Whether or not evacuation is necessary when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. They will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to get reliable information, which is preferable to mere spin or speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak anonymously or “off the record.”
Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow them to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts even if they are unpleasant or even tragic.
Fundamentals of Business Communication Revised (2022) by Venecia Williams & Nia Sonja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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What Is Crisis Communication? A Guide for Beginners
Industries and businesses of all types and sizes are increasingly embracing issues and crisis communication planning.
In fact, an estimated 84 percent of organizations have an emergency communication plan in place, according to the Business Continuity Institute. Fifty-five percent use three or more emergency communication processes.
And yet, nearly two-thirds say they are not confident about their preparedness for a crisis event. So, while organizations recognize the importance of issues and crisis communication, and are investing heavily in related processes, they feel as unprepared as ever.
To understand the disconnect, let us take a closer look at the basics of issues and crisis communication.
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication refers to the technologies, systems and protocols that enable an organization to effectively communicate during a major threat to its business or reputation.
Organizations must be prepared for a wide range of potential crises, including extreme weather, crime, cyber-attacks, product recalls, corporate malfeasance, reputation crises, and PR incidents.
Preparing ahead of time for a crisis ensures that relevant personnel can quickly and effectively communicate with each other during moments of threat, sharing information that allows the organization to quickly rectify the situation, protect customers, employees and assets, and ensure business continuity.
Who needs crisis communication?
Companies of all sizes, in all industries, face a growing number of threats. Due to the instantaneous nature of the online news media, it is more important than ever for organizations to be able to respond quickly and confidently instantly when a crisis emerges.
Crisis communication is designed to connect a variety of audiences to each another, such as:
- Crisis management team
- PR team
- Department heads
- Security personnel
- Local police & first responders
- Government officials
How is crisis communication done well?
Although the ideal approach to crisis communication is slightly different for each organization, several best practices have emerged that can be helpful in establishing your program:
Communication should be in real time.
This ensures that employees and other stakeholders have access to the most up-to-date information as the emergency unfolds.
- Communication Should Be In Real Time: This ensures that employees and other stakeholders have access to the most up-to-date information as the emergency unfolds.
- Information Should Be Accessible Anywhere: Emails and manual phone trees are ineffective for crisis communications when employees may be away from their desks. Both are ineffective during a power failure. It is more effective to communicate using mobile technology, which goes where the user goes.
- Messages Should Be Relevant To The Individual: Not every employee should receive every message during an emergency. Response time will slow down if team members are flooded with irrelevant information. Ideally, your system should be able to target specific individuals and departments to ensure the most pertinent information gets to those who need it most.
Thanks to the mass adoption of smartphones, mobile crisis management apps enable employees to receive emergency notifications in real-time communication in any location and at any time of day.
The crisis management team can instantaneously update relevant information throughout the duration of the situation.
As a result, people at every level of your organization are equipped with the right information, at precisely the moment they need it most. This streamlines emergency response, helps protect people, keep physical and digital assets safe and minimizes lost productivity.
Crisis Management Pillars: Building Alignment With Stakeholders
Five Most Common Gaps in Crisis Management
In Case of Crisis Goes On The Road
Why Institutional Discrimination is Keeping Crisis Managers Awake at Night
- In Case of Crisis 365 Overview
- Terms of Service
Chapter 10: Negative News and Crisis Communication
10.3 crisis communication plan, learning objective.
- Understand how to prepare a crisis communication plan.
A rumor that the CEO is ill pulls down the stock price. A plant explosion kills several workers and requires evacuating residents on several surrounding city blocks. Risk management seeks to address these many risks, including prevention as well as liability, but emergency and crisis situations happen nevertheless. In addition, people make errors in judgment that can damage the public perception of a company. The mainstream media does not lack stories involving infidelity, addiction, or abuse that require a clear response from a company’s standpoint. In this chapter, we address the basics of a crisis communication plan.
Crisis communication requires efficiency and accuracy.
Danny Howard – Bush: Worst Disaster – CC BY-NC 2.0.
Focus on key types of information during an emergency: (Mallet et al., 1999)
- What is happening?
- Is anyone in danger?
- How big is the problem?
- Who reported the problem?
- Where is the problem?
- Has a response started?
- What resources are on-scene?
- Who is responding so far?
- Is everyone’s location known?
You will be receiving information from the moment you know a crisis has occurred, but without a framework or communication plan to guide you, valuable information may be ignored or lost. These questions help you quickly focus on the basics of “who, what, and where” in the crisis situation.
Developing Your Crisis Communication Plan
A crisis communication plan is the prepared scenario document that organizes information into responsibilities and lines of communication prior to an event. With a plan in place, if an emergency arises, each person knows his or her role and responsibilities from a common reference document. Overall effectiveness can be enhanced with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities for an effective and swift response.
The plan should include four elements:
- Crisis communication team members with contact information
- Designated spokesperson
- Meeting place/location
- Media plan with procedures
A crisis communication team includes people who can
- decide what actions to take,
- carry out those actions,
- offer expertise or education in the relevant areas.
By designating a spokesperson prior to an actual emergency, your team addresses the inevitable need for information in a proactive manner. People will want to know what happened and where to get further details about the crisis. Lack of information breeds rumors, which can make a bad situation worse. The designated spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the organization and its values; be comfortable in front of a microphone, camera, and media lights; and be able to stay calm under pressure.
Part of your communication crisis plan should focus on where you will meet to coordinate communicate and activities. In case of a fire in your house, you might meet in the front yard. In an organization, a designated contingency building or office some distance away from your usual place of business might serve as a central place for communication in an emergency that requires evacuating your building. Depending on the size of your organization and the type of facilities where you do business, the company may develop an emergency plan with exit routes, hazardous materials procedures, and policies for handling bomb threats, for example. Safety, of course, is the priority, but in terms of communication, the goal is to eliminate confusion about where people are and where information is coming from.
Whether or not evacuation is necessary, when a crisis occurs, your designated spokesperson will gather information and carry out your media plan. He or she will need to make quick judgments about which information to share, how to phrase it, and whether certain individuals need to be notified of facts before they become public. The media and public will want to know information and reliable information is preferable to speculation. Official responses help clarify the situation for the public, but an unofficial interview can make the tragedy personal, and attract unwanted attention. Remind employees to direct all inquiries to the official spokesperson and to never speak “off the record.”
Enable your spokesperson to have access to the place you indicated as your crisis contingency location to coordinate communication and activities, and allow that professional to prepare and respond to inquiries. When crisis communication is handled in a professional manner, it seeks not to withhold information or mislead, but to minimize the “spin damage” from the incident by providing necessary facts, even if they are unpleasant or even tragic.
- Locate the crisis communication plan where you go to school or work, or find one online. Briefly describe the overall plan and please note at least one part, element, or point of emphasis we have not discussed. Post and compare with classmates.
- When people don’t know what to do in a crisis situation, what happens? How can you address probable challenges before the crisis occurs? Discuss your ideas with classmates.
- As a case study, research one crisis that involves your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? Compare your results with classmates.
- Locate a crisis communication online and review it. Share and compare with classmates.
- Do you always have to be on guard with members of the media? Why or why not? Explain your answer to the class as if they were members of the media.
Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.
- Business Communication for Success. Authored by : University of Minnesota. Located at : https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/ . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
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Crisis communication: the right way to deal with critical situations
No business is safeguarded from difficult situations. In one way or another, they will be confronted with problems at some point in time. Issues could arise internally because of incorrect decision making or externally and exert pressure on the business. To ensure that these issues do not lead to an economic catastrophe, an efficient and well-thought out crisis communication strategy is important, among other measures. When the right strategy is in place, a company can master many hurdles and survive a crisis with minimal damage.
What is crisis communication?
Why is crisis communication important, here’s how to do it: guidance for effective crisis communication, tips for crisis communication in newsletters.
When a business finds itself in a problematic situation - and even before a crisis emerges – the right communication strategy proves to be vital. Those who remain silent, have already lost. It’s important to make employees, CEOs, stakeholders, and even the public aware of the issues and the upcoming challenges to overcome them .
The term “crisis communication” describes the communication process of informing the public and/or relevant parties about a problematic situation. As such, crisis communication is part of crisis management and is geared toward minimizing negative consequences that may arise.
To ensure that crisis communication can be effective, it needs to be well-prepared. If a proper strategy does not exist, the danger is that communication could be hampered. As part of the PR department’s duties, crisis communication aims to minimize or avoid damage to the reputation of a company . In a business context, crises are perceived as a danger to the existence of an entire business. In addition, massive damage to a business’s reputation or disruptions of an operating schedule can be evaluated as crises.
Different scenarios that require crisis communication:
- Employees striking
- Defective products and product withdrawals
- Board member scandals
- Environmental scandals
- A “social media nightmare”
Problems that require crisis communication are usually caused by mistakes made by a company or individual members of staff. It’s rare that a company ends up in a problematic situation through no fault of their own.
Crisis marketing - tips for gaining new customers, sending out marketing messages, uncovering new distribution channels and more in our Digital Guide article.
One of the worst approaches a company can take during a crisis is to remain silent. If a business does not actively shape the discussion, the public can only ever talk about a company, but not with it. That’s why actively engaging in discussion is a must. In this case, the people responsible or the PR department will face various challenges. It’s not just about reacting in an adequate manner. There is also immense pressure to react swiftly because the longer one waits, the more out of hand a situation may spiral. If you react too late, any damage already caused may become difficult to reverse.
A crisis communication plan should form the basis of good crisis communication. When well-prepared, a company can communicate well even under time pressure.
Companies tend to gravitate toward hiding or playing down mistakes or problems. But outsiders are adept at noticing when difficulties arise. If a company does not provide satisfactory information, third parties may start to speculate. This can lead to rumors that may portray a company in a negative light. Businesses whose value depends on public opinion (for example, corporations) can suffer immensely from a lack of crisis communication.
Organizations should develop a strategy on how to communicate during difficult times. Using a well-thought-out plan, they can react swiftly and professionally when issues arise. There are just a few things to bear in mind when it comes to communicating well:
- Keep calm : A crisis is a stressful time during which emotions tend to be heightened. Although problems should be communicated quickly, they shouldn’t be rushed, and actions should be well-considered.
- Call on your crisis squad : Decide who should get together during a difficult time to lead the communication strategy. The elected people should have the responsibility and authority to attack issues.
- One-voice strategy : It’s important that individual departments in a business do not share contradicting information with the public. That’s why a unified strategy should be agreed upon.
- Monitor : To be part of the public discussion, you need to monitor it. Review how media (and social media) report on your business.
- Be transparent : Transparency is the only way to counteract rumors. Make sure you stay informed on the individual steps you need to undertake to overcome these challenges.
- Keep up communication : A single press release is not enough. Prepare to issue statements long-term and regularly communicate with the public via different channels.
A company homepage is a useful tool for crisis communication to share a business’s perspective. If you do not already have a web presence, the website builder MyWebsite by IONOS enables you to design and publish a website in a matter of minutes.
E-Mail communication in times of crisis
Another example of crisis communication can be seen in how companies communicate via email in a crisis. Many companies rely on newsletter marketing as an important tool to get in touch with customers. This strategy has many advantages. Through the possibilities offered by modern email marketing software you can build up very personal communication style with your clients. This helps to limit bad outcomes in times of crisis However, in an unprecedentedly exceptional situation such as the COVD-19 pandemic, which began to hit economies hard in March 2020, many companies panicked and forgot about the use of good newsletter communication . Some brands bombard their customers with one e-mail after another.
The increase in communication is not surprising – or at least the desire to do so is not. Some companies needed to inform their customers very quickly, about unusual events, delivery issues, limited services, and so on. The problem, however, is that if newsletters are overused , the external communication of many companies is at risk - and this must not happen, especially in times of crisis. Sending newsletter after newsletter puts the overall effectiveness of this marketing strategy at risk.
In an international crisis such as the Coronavirus pandemic, it is therefore more important than ever to consider how necessary each newsletter or form of communication is, and to show consideration . Other companies may have more information that needs to arrive quickly. Finding the right measure is therefore useful in crisis situations for several reasons. You do not put an unnecessary burden on the network, and you don’t overload your customers with lots of information at once.
- Communicate informatively: Do not use a crisis (whether international or limited to your company) primarily to conduct a marketing campaign. Limit your communication to the facts and avoid advertising.
- Restrict the number of recipients: Do not blast your entire address book with the same message. Instead, use targeted E-mailing to achieve the highest possible engagement rate.
- Be sensitive to tone: Stay objective in your e-mails and avoid alarming terms. This makes your communication look more professional. In your Newsletter subject in particular, you should avoid scare-mongering language, so that your messages don't end up unread or in spam folders.
You can also take steps on a technical level to ensure that your e-mails reach their recipients. Major crises are used by cybercriminals in phishing attacks . To ensure that your emails are not suspected of having criminal intent, you should use SPF , DKIM and DMARC. With these techniques, you’ll authenticate yourself as a trusted sender and avoid ending up in the dreaded spam folder.
Effective crisis communication: three examples
Often, companies attract attention because they communicate badly or not at all during crises which can worsen the situation. However, there are plenty of examples of effective crisis communication. The following cases show how to turn a negative situation around.
Soft drinks maker Pepsi has faced up to a few different crises in its long history - and its crisis communication hasn’t always been positive. In 1993, however, the company managed to turn a near-disastrous situation into a boon to its image . Multiple people claimed that they had found dangerous objects such as needles inside Pepsi cans.
As a reaction, Pepsi launched videos depicting its production process. This informed the public that technically it wasn’t even possible that objects could get into the cans. Furthermore, the company presented surveillance footage from a supermarket showing how a woman had inserted a needle into a Pepsi can – which was out of the company’s control.
Pepsi mastered the crisis well by attacking the issue from multiple aspects. For one, Pepsi remained calm and collected. First, it determined internally whether the situation could be Pepsi’s fault. Subsequently, the company relied on increased communication to dispel consumer fears. Lastly, Pepsi remained transparent by providing an insight into its manufacturing process thus avoiding rumors.
Coffee chain Starbucks acknowledged racism issues among its staff after the circulation of an online video. In one of its US branches, employees had called the police because of two dark-skinned customers who hadn’t ordered anything for a while because they were waiting for a friend. The public agreed: this wouldn’t have happened to a light-skinned guest.
Starbucks launched a large anti-racism campaign in the wake of the scandal. Instead of blaming the relevant employees, the company focused on a larger internal issue. For one day, the company closed all its branches to provide training to combat racial prejudice. Costing the company more than $10 million, the measure gained international attention and improved its image again.
Snapchat is a relatively young technology company that has already dealt with multiple problems. When in 2014 cyber criminals gained access to the CEO’s emails containing sensitive information, the company faced up to the issue. In reaction, its CEO drafted a personal correspondence to his employees and subsequently released the email on Twitter. His message underlined his humanity, creating a tighter bond with staff and users of the app.
This form of crisis communication got the company through a difficult time while improving the CEO’s image.
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Crisis management: here’s how to manage a crisis
Crises or emergencies can affect any company. However, a well thought-out crisis management plan helps your company get back on track. To safely navigate through tough times, a company needs a competent crisis team which can examine the reasons, make decisions, and coordinate the right steps to take.
Crisis management plan: structure and content
For many companies, a crisis management plan is at least as important as a solid business plan. It ensures that corporate governance is maintained during critical times and a business can respond to an existential threat more efficiently. But how do you create a crisis management plan and what else do you need to know? Find out in this article.
Work sharing: the most important facts for employers and employees
When businesses face a shortage of work for their staff, they may be able apply for government aid as part of a work-sharing program instead, often also referred to as short-time working. As an employee, this means that you would be working fewer hours but at a reduced pay. To replace partially lost wages, staff can claim some unemployment benefits. Here’s what you need to know about work sharing…
Deferral: When can you ask for payment deferment?
Is your company currently unable to meet its payment obligations or attend to its private contracts? In that case, a deferral is an option to delay payments whether you’re conducting business as an entrepreneur or a private individual. We’ll show you what conditions must be met for a deferred payment and what you need to look out for.
Crisis communication plan: every company needs one
Good crisis communication is important for any type of business because brands can damage their reputation in the long-term by using bad communication. Find out more about the process of establishing a crisis communication plan and the three phases the plan should cover. This article provides valuable tips to implement a crisis communication plan for each of the three phases using examples.
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3 Strategies For Business Communication During Crisis Business communication has always been important, but it is doubly important in crises.
By Pritom Das • Jul 1, 2020
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Communication has always been a crucial element of business operations, regardless of the size or location of the company in question. Being able to communicate effective is crucial to defining a brand and putting the best foot forward with customers. When done effectively, business communication can boost a company's products and services to immense profitability, or sink the company, if done poorly.
Business communication in normal times is very different from business communication in times of crisis. The stakes are higher, and leaders must execute their communication efforts perfectly. Here are a few strategies you can employ to do just that:
Resist the urge to profiteer
When it comes to a crisis situation, the worst position to be in is that of an organization that is seeking to take advantage of the situation. When people cannot blame the cause of a crisis on anyone, they will likely be all too happy to focus all their anger on people they believe are making it worse. Needless to say, the best (or worst, actually) example of this is all the businesses that hiked prises during the health crisis, making essential supplies too expensive for many people to afford.
Apart from severely damaging their brand equity, many of those businesses are facing regulatory censure. On the milder end of the scale, opportunist tactics to make sales must be avoided in your communications. For instance, Subway's tying the receipt of masks to purchases was a very poorly thought out and damaging approach. Instead, focus on bringing relief to your customers and the public by highlighting discounts or incentives your business is offering, and how those gestures will help people cope with the crisis better.
Related: 14 Proven Ways to Improve Your Communication Skills
Helpful and timely information
In a time of crisis such as this, people will understandably have a lot of uncertainty regarding what to do. Your brand can help by sending information that is relevant to the time and place, and helping people make the right decisions to stay safe and ensure their health. Such gestures will certainly be remembered and appreciated, and the degree of those emotions will be directly tied to how timely and helpful your content is, as explained extensively in this McKinsey report .
When doing this though, it is important to be cautious and ensure that you are only sending verified, accurate information. According to Yaniv Masjedi, CMO of Nextiva, "Sending nothing at all is better than sending something that turns out to be inaccurate or worse still, harmful. If possible, you should also link to or at least reference to the sources for any information you are citing, where such information is scientific, legal or similarly sensitive in nature." That will increase how helpful the content is because people can go cross-check or get more info, but crucially, it also gives you a layer of insulation, in the event of any subsequent issues with the information.
Related: 4 Simple Ways to Communicate Better With Your Customers
Stay responsive and consistent
In a crisis on the scale of the ongoing health crisis, everyone will understandably be rattled, so it's important for your business to continue communicating with customers using all available technology channels . You should do everything in your power not to seem as if you are in panic mode to customers. The most common ways this manifests is when people (customers, partners, media) cannot elicit a response from you. Silence gives the opportunity for those people to fill in their presumptions and as everyone's panicking, those presumptions are likely he worst kind. This can lead to lost sales or other opportunities, as well as a damaged reputation where such silence amounts to poor customer service.
Businesses also often lack PR cohesion during a crisis, resulting in a situation where enquirers are hearing one thing from the Facebook page and getting different information from the Twitter account. Obviously, that would not inspire confidence in customers that yours is a business they can trust at the time. The cause of such issues is often teammates being out of touch with one another. The first solution is to ensure that there is a comprehensive communications plan from the beginning and the second is to make sure that the plan is updated and accessible by everyone who might be speaking on behalf of the company.
Related: 3 Things That Will Boost Your Team's Communication
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Benefits of Enhanced Crisis Communication Skills
Feb 24, 2021 | Preparedness Blog
Enhanced crisis communication skills help organizations meet the growing demands for information related to an emergency event. Organizations need skilled and practiced spokespersons to communicate effectively with stakeholders and the media about natural, technical, or manmade disasters . Spokespersons should be prepared to address a wide-range of emergency-related issues and topics from national and international news agencies . Having a well-developed crisis communication strategy increases your organization’s trust and credibility factors with stakeholders. C risis communication training , which is science-based, is grounded in communications principles, best practices, and practical experience to enhance acceptance of important information during a crisis event .
Building trust is critical when developing crisis messaging and gaining stakeholders’ trust. Using multiple communication platforms such as social media, texting, live streaming, etc., can create challenges with message consistency . Build trust by u sing the same or similar language and references across all communication platforms reassures stakeholders and ensures message consistency. Consistency in crisis communication message development and delivery is key in trust-building during a crisis. Developing and deploying consistent crisis communication strategies ensure coordination and approval processes are preplanned, preapproved, and ready for dissemination prior to an emergency event.
Enhance You and Your Teams Image
Enhanced crisis communication builds trust with stakeholders, provides your organization with feedback, and ensures dissemination of reliable information to stakeholders. Enhanced crisis communication can also promote a positive organizational image during a crisis event. In today’s social media-dominated world, especially with a crisis-related event, it is critical for organizations to maximize their crisis communication strategies as a medium for informing their stakeholder and preser ving their organizational reputation.
Improving productivity during a crisis is critical to organizational success and image-building. Productivity fosters a sense of belonging, establishes stronger working relationships among staff members, creates an environment of trust and empowerment, and ensures decision making is for the common good of both internal and external stakeholders. Appropriate crisis communication management is vital in preserving organizational integrity.
Adapt to Change
Today’s technology has created globally diverse communication environments which can present many challenges during a crisis event. During a crisis event, it is imperative organizations avoid communication regret(s). These regrets can have immediate and long-lasting impact(s) on organizations. Avoid these impacts through planning, training, and preparation. Developing and exercising a comprehensive crisis communication using a variety of social media platforms, texting, streaming news conferences, etc. , prepares organizations for timely and accurate dissemination of information and lessens opportunities for communication regret.
Resolve Problems Quickly
U sing social media and off-the-shelf, low-cost technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Trello, etc., positions your organization to manage communications more effectively. Incorporating social media into your information management cycle provides consistent, coordinated, and timely info rmation pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis. Leading , prior to and post-crisis , is as important as leading during a crisis.
Not only will the ability to communicate effectively with your team members and employees enable good r apport — it ensure s y our ability to affect change or action. In the ever-changing world where immediacy is everythin g, enhanced, strategic communication skills can help you meet stakeholder expectations and manage effectively.
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Crisis Communication - Meaning, Need and its Process
Crisis refers to sequence of unwanted events at the workplace which lead to disturbances and major unrest amongst the individuals. Crisis generally arises on a short notice and triggers a feeling of threat and fear in the employees. In simpler words crisis leads to uncertainty and causes major harm to the organization and its employees.
It is essential for the employees to sense the early signs of crisis and warn the employees against the negative consequences of the same. Crisis not only affects the smooth functioning of the organization but also pose a threat to its brand name.
What is Crisis Communication ?
Crisis Communication refers to a special wing which deals with the reputation of the individuals as well as the organization. Crisis communication is an initiative which aims at protecting the reputation of the organization and maintaining its public image . Various factors such as criminal attacks, government investigations, media enquiry can tarnish the image of an organization.
Crisis Communication specialists fight against several challenges which tend to harm the reputation and image of the organization.
Need for Crisis Communication
Crisis can have a negative effect on brand image. Crisis Communication experts are employed to save an organizations reputation against various threats and unwanted challenges.
Brand identity is one of the most valuable assets of an organization. The main purpose of Crisis Communication team is to protect the brand identity and maintain the organizations firm standing within the industry .
Crisis Communication specialists strive hard to overcome tough situations and help the organization come out of difficult situations in the best possible and quickest way.
Crisis Communication Process
Organizations hire crisis communication specialists to overcome tough times as well as to maintain their reputation and position in the market.
- Types of Crisis
- Crisis Management Model
- Crisis Management Plan
- Crisis Management Team
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Authorship/Referencing - About the Author(s)
The article is Written By Prachi Juneja and Reviewed By Management Study Guide Content Team . MSG Content Team comprises experienced Faculty Member, Professionals and Subject Matter Experts. We are a ISO 2001:2015 Certified Education Provider . To Know more, click on About Us . The use of this material is free for learning and education purpose. Please reference authorship of content used, including link(s) to ManagementStudyGuide.com and the content page url.
- Crisis Management - Introduction
- Crisis Communication
- Managing Stress during Crisis
- Role of Employees in Crisis
- Role of Leaders in Crisis Management
- Why Organizations need to Communicate Effectively During Crises
- Chain of Command, Business Continuity Planning, and Crisis Leadership in Corporates