Crises almost always lay bare one’s lack of preparedness. COVID-19 is no exception. These last few weeks have given us all a real-time course in who was ready to respond to the unexpected and who was not.
Crises are times for leaders to shine. And the leaders that shine the most are the ones who are the best communicators. Likewise, communications is often the single greatest point of tragic failure in crises for organizations and their leaders.
You’ve undoubtedly heard workplace horror stories these last few weeks. People working from home without any guidance on the tech they’re supposed to use let alone how they’re supposed to get their jobs done under these strange circumstances. Managers failing to lay out expectations. IT departments struggling to figure out how to keep people connected. HR professionals pulling their hair out trying to find answers to questions of benefits, time sheets, furloughs, layoffs and government aid programs.
When circumstances are changing as quickly as they did in the first few weeks of the crisis, it’s tough to get everything right. The good news is that most people don’t expect you to get everything right. They do expect you to do your best to keep them informed.
Err on the side of over-communicating especially when people’s jobs and lives are at stake. The worst thing a company can do is to keep silent and let their employees and customers start speculating about what’s going to happen. And speculate they will! Rumours start to fly when people are starved of information about important topics that affect them deeply. People get angry and resentful too. The longer you wait to communicate, the harder it is for your message to be heard. Much better to say something, even if you are working to find the answers.
Don’t lie and don’t speculate. If you don’t have the answer, don’t make something up. In the interim, a good option is to explain to your stakeholders how you’re making your decisions. What information are you waiting for? What factors are important as you weigh your next steps?
Being transparent about your situation is much more likely to win you friends and admirers than clamming up and hiding. According to old but still relevant research from Stanford, publicly traded companies that fessed up to mistakes tended to perform better afterwards.
Be calm and reassure
Encourage useful action
Now that we have all had a few weeks to get used to social distancing and working from home, most workplaces seem to be adapting to their new reality. The problems that caused so much stress just a month ago are fading away. Managers are learning how to manage decentralized teams. Businesses are learning how to serve their customers, often in ways they never dreamt of.
As businesses and other organizations prepare to return to work in this new normal, the same principles apply for effective communications..
Over the next few weeks, companies of all sizes should be going out of their way to talk to their employees and customers about what to expect during the return to work. How will your company be implementing social distancing? Will there be enforcement and penalties for non-compliance? Will you maintain any work from home privileges? Are you going to be maintaining any of the new policies you’ve implemented during the current isolation phase of the pandemic? Will laid off or furloughed employees be called back? Will wage rollbacks be eliminated?
If you’re not sure what your employees and customers are worried about, then ask them. It’s easy to send out a simple email survey to gather information. (SurveyMonkey is a good platform to use and has free service options.) You can make it anonymous if you like. People will appreciate being asked and the mere act of asking will show you’re thinking of them.
Publish your return to work plans. Put them on your Intranet or send them out to employees in some other way, but give them communications in writing so they can see them. And for customers, make your plans known on your website, social media and in your email marketing.
Consider paid thank yous. Paid advertisements thanking your staff, your customers and the community at large for their support during the crisis can allow you to reach a large audience of current and future customers - especially if you do not have an easy way to connect with them.
Use video messages. Video messages from your company welcoming a return to (almost) normal will be a good way to humanize your messages. These videos can be shared internally and externally; consider different videos for each audience.
Don’t let your guard down. Infectious disease experts are cautioning about reinfection in the weeks and months after return to work. Keep your business continuity plans in operation until danger has passed. That may mean requiring some employees to continue to work off-site.
Plan for the next crisis. Crises by their nature are unpredictable. While it’s impossible to plan for every foreseeable crisis, companies can plan for types of crises. The best time to consider how you’d cope in a crisis is when there is none. A good crisis communications plan can help you speed up your reactions the next time you need to roll out communications under the gun.
If there was ever a time to reconsider what your company is doing with its marketing and communications and how it is doing it, it’s during a monumental crisis like COVID-19. Millions of people have been given a crash course in communications technology over the past few weeks. People who were scared of their iPhones in February are now helping grandparents set up video conferencing apps with ease.
We’ve all learned how to make better use of technology in the past few weeks. Is your company ready to leverage that? How are you going to take advantage of this with your staff and clients?
Want to hear some ideas on changing and reevaluating your marketing and communications? Our first consultation is always free. We’d love to hear from you.
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