It’s Not Too Late to Develop Your Crisis Communication Plan

05/12/2020

As some states loosen restrictions related to COVID-19, many are preparing for the next phase of this pandemic. Although the scenarios range from opening businesses and offices again to phased or staggered operations, as well as a multitude of other scenarios, the one constant is the necessary role of good communications. Pause and prepare for the next wave of planned messages.

In early to mid-March, everyone was thrown into communicating their organization’s response to the crisis, most without any formal crisis communication plans. While most managed the process admirably, operating without a plan and a defined process created decision fatigue and constant, repeated chaos. This may or may not have been your scenario, but so many I have talked to told me that they were thrust into making immediate decisions and therefore assembling last-minute communication, only to repeat the scenario with new factors and information the next day. The efforts were on the fly: define the issue, gather information, assemble team, get info out. Then repeat and repeat. Consistency in the key messages, the team, and the process for review and approval was non-existent.

While this may have settled into a groove over the last few weeks from a communications standpoint, we are entering the info-react decision scenario once again as re-occupancy and opening businesses moves onto our horizon. It’s not too late to plan. There is still plenty of communication ahead of you, so pausing and assembling your crisis plan will help reduce the fatigue of the last two months.

  1. As we enter this next phase, here are some key steps you can take to ensure a smooth communications process:
    Analyze: What has worked well thus far? What lessons learned can you identify that will help guide your efforts moving forward? Take some time to really look at what has and hasn’t worked. 
  2. Plan: Instead of operating ad hoc, commit to creating a plan. Don’t confuse habit (or your recent pattern) with a true planning effort. Look closely at the team needed to help you move forward from a decision and communications standpoint and take the time to identify the consistent key messages. Assemble the team. Have a process for review of information and how it is distributed. 
  3. Channels: Consider your channels for distribution. While it is wise to stick with the communication mediums that are tried and true with your target audiences, such as an established and well-vetted email distribution list, does your reach need to expand at all for this next phase? For example, if you are a building owner and traditionally just communicate with a few key tenant representatives, do you need to expand the next phase of communication to all in the building and not assume the message will get distributed? 
  4. Protocols: If you haven’t already established the process for communicating news and procedures related to COVID-19 and return to work, develop them now. Examples include the process for incident reports related to COVID-19, such as who does an employee notify if they have tested positive? What about violations by those not wearing proper protective equipment or using a space that is closed off? After protocols are created, make sure all concerned know both the expectations and ramifications.

Some other key reminders related to crisis communications best practices include: 

  1. Have a consistent spokesperson(s). Many have found it is helpful to have one person, such as the HR director, handle operational updates, while the president is the author of more compassionate, human-element types of communication. 
  2. Don’t change your core values, culture, or brand. Stick to your key messages. Many companies have organized their communications under consistent headings or themes, which makes it easy for everyone to discern the information and helps reinforce the key messages. 
  3. Communicate early and often. Tell your audience when and how you will communicate, and then follow-through. Don’t wait to respond until you have all the answers: acknowledge what you know and what you are working on. Transparency is key.

AOE is available to assist with your communication plans. While there are many best practices to follow, there is no one-size-fits-all guidebook for navigating COVID-19, so working with a team with deep expertise in crisis communications is advantageous.

Kimberly Kayler, CPSM, is president of AOE, Advancing Organizational Excellence and can be reached by email