10 tips for communicating in a crisis

Businessman holds newspaper showing crisis headline

When you’re communicating in a crisis, make sure your emergency comms help, rather than hurt, your brand.

If your email in-box is anything like mine, over the last few days it’s probably been clogged with dozens of emails from nervous organisations trying really hard to assure us that everything’s okay, it’s business as usual and there’ll be no interruption to That Thing They Do.

On the one hand, that’s great. Good on them.

But on the other, apart from one or two exceptions, I truly don’t care. I’m uncertain about the future of my own business. I’m genuinely frightened that I or the people I love will get sick. I lost my mother a little over three weeks ago and I really don’t want to lose anyone else.

So the fact that some Silicon Valley app developer has just given their employees complimentary hand sanitiser doesn’t mean shit to me. Add to that the extreme tone deafness of using a subject line like “Important News!” to disseminate this fluff and I’m well on the way to becoming a former customer seething with hatred.

Remember: it’s not about you

What you say to your audience right now matters, people. So if there’s one critical piece of advice I’d share about communicating in a crisis, it’s this: normal business comms’ conditions apply. In other words, don’t make your messaging about you. Make it about them.

As I write this in New Zealand we’re only seven hours away from an unprecedented national lockdown that will last four weeks.

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. How important do you think you and your business are to them right now? Does what you want to say to them actually matter? Will it impact on them in any real way?

If the honest answer is No, send out something brief wishing them well if you must, and then back off. Now is not your time. But if the answer is Yes and you need to proceed, the tips below should help. They’re the product of eight years’ experience making and presenting radio content, including a lot of emergency broadcasting. So I know how to frame a message to people under stress.

Bear in mind that these are general tips only. They might not all relate to your business or industry but most probably will. Use what will help you most.

Guidelines for businesses communicating in a crisis

1. Make sure you’ve got a damned good reason

Again: if it’s not important, leave it—especially now, in the early phase. People are already a bit punch-drunk from Covid-19* information overload. The last thing anyone needs is another waffly email from a panicked business touting for work. But if you have customers or clients depending on you, then sure—keep them in the loop.

What constitutes “important”, you ask?

  • Informing people that you’re still operating (or not, sadly)
  • Changes to opening hours or how you’re doing business (e.g. moving to an online shop)
  • Fundamental changes to a major product range (e.g. sold out, delays in filling orders, unable to re-stock)
  • Anything that will affect service delivery, particularly where existing orders or contracts are involved

2. Don’t get ahead of yourself

Everything’s changing all the time, so deal only with the here and now:

  • What changes you’re putting in place today
  • When you’ll review them
  • When to expect an update

3. Stick to the facts

Get your information from trusted sources and base your comms on that. DO NOT share information from dubious sources and DO NOT SPECULATE. Even the dullest human being on the planet has a boundless imagination when it comes to anything scary. Speculation heightens anxiety and breeds panic. Panic = bad.

4. Match the message to the need

Every crisis goes through stages. What’s needed at the risk assessment stage is different to what’s required in the resolution and recovery stages. So when you’re communicating in a crisis, your messaging focus will need to change and reflect new priorities over time.

In this early phase people need reliable information more than anything else. As the crisis progresses, they’ll need community building, reassurance, and something to take their minds off their situation.

It’s better to be aware of this and start formulating a strategy now, rather than later. Businesses that can hit the ground running with a clear plan will have a definite advantage.

5. Watch your language

People aren’t really thinking straight at the moment and that affects their comprehension. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity in your communication. Be straight, clear and to the point—the shorter, the better. Keep language simple, and sentences and paragraphs short.

The best approach right now is to limit your emails or newsletters to a single, key message and repeat it at least once across all the platforms you use.

6. Write news like a journalist

When you’re conveying information, put the most important point first, the next most important point second, and so on in order of descending importance. Cover off the six key questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. I’ve thrown together a quick and dirty example of a basic news blog post you can view and download here. This template will also work for a newsflash-type email or newsletter when you need to get important, basic info out quickly.

Important to note: the example is a light-hearted one because we could all do with a wry grin right now but I’m NOT suggesting that you adopt a light tone with your own post. The point is to show you how to address the six key questions in an economical way.

For longer, more detailed posts, don’t forget to make the content digestible—use sub-headings and bullet points where needed.

7. Use social media for good

This is an incredible opportunity for businesses to build and nurture community. Look for ways you can help other people. Share what’s useful. Be encouraging.

8. Keep your promises

If you tell your customers you’ll give them an update in a week, make sure you follow through. If you let them down when they’re vulnerable, they won’t forget it. Your business might only be a small part of their lives but don’t let your unreliability add to their mountain of uncertainty.

9. Be authentic and humble

Yesterday, a large national retailer loudly claiming they were an “essential service” and therefore entitled to stay open for business in the lockdown, was given a very public smackdown.

A national gun retailer making the same claim failed to meet the criteria as well.

There’s no place for arrogance in a crisis. When lives are at stake, what might normally be considered “ballsy” just comes across as shallow and selfish. That’s how brands become toxic.

10. Make good use of the down-time

If you find yourself with time on your hands, use it to plan ahead. Create a content strategy or engage an expert to work on it with you. Write blog posts. Start a podcast. Shoot videos on your phone. Be creative—there’s nothing like creativity for boosting mood and wellbeing, even in difficult times.

Stay kind

This is a scary time for many businesses, my own included. While I understand that we’re all wondering how we’re going to survive, this is not the time for desperate, ill-conceived marketing campaigns. Communicating in a crisis calls for empathy, real connection and a very light touch.

And on that—although I’ve focused on communicating with customers in this post, there’s an equally important group in need of careful, considered comms: employees. Most of the tips above are relevant to them too. Please show compassion and understanding in your messaging. Many are facing an insecure future.

If I can help or advise you on formulating a strategy for your business comms over the next few months, let me know and I’ll tee up a free, 30-minute introductory consult. Or if you have a few tips of your own for communicating in a crisis, please share in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

Warm wishes to you from the team at Bold HQ. Stay well.

* Note that the “C” word was only mentioned once in this post. That was deliberate. I suspect we’re all sick of the sound of it and need a little respite 🙂


Niki Morrell is Bold Communications' creative director. Her favourite thing is laughing.

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