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Crisis Communications Lessons to Learn From COVID-19 & Beyond

Pandemics can teach PR professionals quite a lot about crisis communications strategies. In the midst of COVID-19, here are the methods we see working best.

At some point, every organization has to confront the difficult reality of a crisis — sometimes of their own making — that directly affects their operations, employees and stakeholders.

Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, businesses and organizations in every industry and in every country are facing the same crisis at the same time — one of the most devastating in recent memory. Crisis communications strategies can help organizations better manage their reputations in the midst of a crisis, but given the unprecedented outbreak of coronavirus, it can be all too easy to let “panic” become synonymous with “pandemic”.

What The Studies say

According to a recent survey of 300 communications executives by the Institute of PR, only 30 percent said their organizations were “very prepared” for COVID-19 while 55 percent said they were “somewhat prepared”. Almost half (44 percent) said that their crisis communications plan did not specifically address an infectious disease outbreak and 10 percent did not have a crisis communications plan at all. Over 80 percent of respondents said the communications function has been “important” or “very important” to their businesses’ COVID-19 responses.

Prepare for the Worst Case Scenario

Little is known about the coronavirus and the future looks uncertain. Organizations should proactively anticipate the worst case scenario. Even if it doesn’t happen, it’s better to be prepared than have to scramble for a plan at the last minute.

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic in February, Carnival Corporation’s now infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined in Japan after an outbreak onboard. Then in March, Carnival’s Grand Princess was quarantined off the coast of San Francisco. In both cases, the company failed to respond to the spread of the virus effectively or in a timely manner as hundreds fell ill. We, the public, witnessed firsthand the consequences of Carnival’s lax safety policies combined with incompetent government response -- a badly damaged reputation for Carnival. The impact to the brand will be felt for years to come.

A word of advice for your crisis management team: don’t focus solely on the negative side of things. Rather, build a sense of morale and camaraderie amongst your employees, and let stakeholders know that they haven’t been left by the wayside. Resilience is of the utmost importance in dire straits such as these; failure to maintain a level head will only result in further chaos and confusion. Having a plan and communications strategy can help your team, and your operations managers prepare for a potential worst case scenario with a coordinated strategy. Work closely with your team to determine your risk factors.

Prioritize Your People

Figure out who is most acutely affected by the coronavirus outbreak in your own organization. Speak to families and populations undergoing strain as a result of the pandemic. Let them know that they are not alone and they have not been forgotten, and that your organization is alert and ready to help in any way possible. Given the unprecedented economic ramifications we have already experienced from this crisis, it’s important not to neglect the human suffering and focus too much on dwindling sales and profits. However, by prioritizing your people, you’ll undoubtedly be more successful in the long run.

Build a strong culture in your company and practice a mock “War Room” situation. It can be a helpful exercise to test how the implementation of a crisis communications plan would run on a mock or sandbox website. This can be useful for your business if you encounter technical failures, sudden bad PR from a former employee or other unforeseen circumstances. By building a good team culture, you can create camaraderie during these practice situations, and ultimately a strong team bond and reliability when there is real pressure.

Keep Track of Developments & Think Ahead

As disconcerting as it may be to watch or read breaking news updates, they’re published and aired for a reason, and it’s almost always a valuable one. Keep track of developments in the ongoing research regarding COVID-19, and follow reliable news coverage of the pandemic and its progression.

Furthermore, update your stakeholders, employees, and other affiliates on the latest facts and figures. Take time to verify your sources and ensure the information is useful and accurate. Make an effort to demonstrate that your organization truly cares about honest data, protecting the public and minimizing the harm that might arise out of misinformation.

In the communications world, we need to do our best to plan for what’s coming next. If you can get an idea of what may happen and attempt to predict outcomes, you will be ahead of the curve, and more coordinated, cohesive, and helpful than your competition.

Prior to the pandemic, an example of one business crisis in which the company failed to “see around the corner” was Boeing with its 737 Max Jet failure. By responding slowly and not having a plan to show transparency, consumers lost trust and confidence in the Boeing brand. Then in the wake of the Iranian government shooting a passenger plane down in January, some consumers misplaced blame on the Boeing plane design before Iran admitted it was at fault, demonstrating the snowball effect that can result from a failure in crisis communications.

Learn to shift your mindset from reactive to proactive when planning your communications strategy. Your crisis communications team should be able to help mold your messaging so that you can prevent a failure in effective communications from exacerbating a crisis. Contact us if you need help; that’s our specialty!

Give Employees Purpose

In times of crisis, people can feel like their lives have been turned upside down and their futures no longer correlate with the visions they once held. Resolve that error in thinking by giving employees and workers a relevant role to play in the combatting of the crisis.

Use the unique skill sets of each and every team member to make the best of the current situation. The more your employees feel engaged in and responsible for the outcome of public perception regarding your organization during the coronavirus pandemic, the more time and energy they will invest in providing their best work and greatest effort.

Use the Right Words

When following updates from major organizations like the CDC and WHO, it can be all too easy to become overwhelmed by the jargon and technical terminology of scientists and public health officials. When disseminating information to your employees, stakeholders, and audiences, use easy-to-understand language that nearly everyone can grasp. Paraphrasing or using more colloquial language in no way detracts from the accuracy of what you are saying; it merely increases the accessibility of the message. In turn, the public is more aware and engaged.

Speak with Intention

In situations of crisis, it may be tempting to ramble on or shout simply to fill the void or feel as if you are making an effort. This can be deadly for a brand. Take a moment to consider what you say, send or distribute prior to doing so. Ask yourself if your statements or materials are necessary, if they are targeted appropriately and if they are genuinely helpful to the target audience. If you cannot answer all of these questions satisfactorily, it’s time to go back and revise your content. Remember the profound and impactful differences between seeking out attention and speaking with intention.

Businesses such as Ben and Jerry’s have done well in cultivating a brand voice and platform with strong values. Seek to determine your brand values and stick to them. Sharing divisive opinions will drive a lot of attention to your brand. Sometimes fatally so. Speak with intention and lock down your mission statement. When you keep your strategy vague, the public has an opportunity to define it for themselves.

Awaken PR is a results-driven, client-focused PR and digital marketing communications firm that specializes in a number of sectors including crisis communications.

With a diverse team of seasoned PR professionals, content writers, editors, video producers and digital strategists, we have the expertise, the tactics and the resilience to manage any crisis that your organization faces. Please contact Awaken PR today to learn more about how we can help you raise national awareness of your brand and achieve the results you’re seeking, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.