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Combat Crisis Communication Chaos in 2021

by Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications

COVID-19 catapulted client after client into chaos this year. They were all unprepared to talk about it. After all, who plans to talk about a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic? Maybe you went through the frightening drill yourself last spring: A colleague is the first in your company to test positive for COVID-19. A resident in the retirement community you run tests positive. A customer or vendor who has had direct contact with your employees is diagnosed with COVID-19. The phone calls came fast and furious to us in that first wave of infections. Should we tell all our employees, or only the ones working in the location with the infected person? Should we reach out to our staff’s families? Our customers and suppliers? Should we put information about this on our website? Should we post something on our social media sites? Should we tell the media?

Readers of our blog and newsletter – and certainly our clients – know that our answer to every one of those questions is almost always “YES!” Yes, tell the truth, tell it first and tell it fast or risk losing the true narrative of your crisis to misinformation and rumor-hungry Twitter trolls. Yes, tell it all – or as much as legal and privacy concerns allow – because you’ll be caught in a sin of omission, called out and pilloried on social media.

Everyone’s hair was on fire in the initial days of COVID-19 communications. But you can steel your organization for crises in 2021 by resolving to invest in:

  • Crisis Communication Plan. Your company’s reputation is too important to leave to chance. You are more likely to be perceived as credible and in control during a crisis if you have spent time preparing before a crisis occurs. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis in our lifetimes, our crisis plans establish an internal crisis communications team, with tasks and responsibilities, identifies the stakeholders you must communicate with during a crisis and provides checklists and tip sheets for effective crisis communications.

A Crisis Communication Plan is the best way to ensure your organization will respond quickly and effectively, preserving its good name when a crisis hits. What other issues are keeping your executive team and department heads awake at night? Data breach? Active shooter? Cancel-culture boycotts? Demonstrations? The Crisis Communication Plan prepares you with messages, media statements, internal and external email communications and social media posts for the nightmare scenarios you identify to get you through the initial hours of a crisis. That enables you to focus your energies on operational issues and keep your company running.

  • Communication Audit. Your communication in a crisis will be better received by internal and external audiences if your company’s day-to-day communications are perceived as effective and impactful. Are they? A Communication Audit is a comprehensive review of the way in which an organization communicates with its stakeholders and a process that identifies potential ways to improve those communications. It takes a deep and honest dive into the content of your communications and its effectiveness with the people you are targeting. The audit identifies gaps and missed opportunities in your current outreach so you can set priorities for communications, allocate budgets appropriately and align staff strategically.
  • Media Training/Executive Communication Coaching. Very few people are naturally gifted appearing on-camera or speaking before groups. And when those situations are part of a crisis, the stakes to perform well are even higher. Make sure your executive team and staff spokespeople are prepared to conduct interviews, deliver presentations and handle Q&A situations. Make sure they can effortlessly deliver messages for any scenario you’ve identified in your Crisis Communication Plan. Media training helps your spokespeople clearly deliver your company’s messages and succinctly and accurately communicate your position on important issues and events with the media and your important internal and external audiences.

Crises of any magnitude are a true test of your company’s mettle, but they don’t have to be a fire drill. Resolve to be ready in the New Year and give us a call at Hennes Communications.

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