As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but unfortunately the saying doesn’t tell us how to get going.
Thinking about the many types of crisis, from a data breach to a product recall, from a catastrophic weather event to a pandemic, it's clear they are all different with a unique set of challenges, and as such different ways of “getting going." However, they all have one thing in common and that is the need to quickly, clearly and effectively communicate information.
In the rush to respond and put something, anything, out fast, companies often release a series of incomplete, disjointed, or even worse, tone-deaf communications that do more harm than good. Instead, we believe it is important to think through your response strategically with the goal of managing the dialogue with key constituents over the lifespan of the crisis versus through a series of one-off messages. Balancing agility and timeliness with strategic intent will not only make your initial, critical responses more effective, but also help position your business for success longer term.
Because communication is a strategy and not a single execution, begin by developing a communication protocol, and a good structure to leverage is the “now, near, and next” construct. First determine what is critical information right now. Then, after initial communication, find out what needs to be addressed in the near-term and determine how to keep the information flow effective and helpful, as things unfold.
Finally ascertain what comes next as things settle down. What is the ongoing communication protocol needed and what processes should be put in place to react most effectively in the future?
Here’s how you can accomplish this:
Each stage is also characterized by a core objective: “Now” is about informing and comforting; “Next” is about business continuity planning; “Near” is about learning and applying.
The first key constituency to address is employees. Assuring and supporting them while communicating concern for their safety and wellbeing is critical. They also need to know how to conduct themselves, how to keep the business moving forward, and what they should be telling customers, suppliers, and other business partners.
Start with the company narrative, what is your communication sequencing, and how will you deliver the information? Is it an email, is it on the website, is it through social media, or is it a personal one to one call? There are many ways to get messaging out and in most cases you will want to leverage several mediums – the key being everyone must be working off the same script.
Remember that initially, it’s critical information that you will pass along. It must be simple, direct and delivered with a human voice. It's important to note that you may not have all the facts, and that’s ok. Acknowledge that you are working on solving problems and will continue to update as more information becomes available. Once the critical information has been delivered you will need to start thinking about future communications.
A clear communication strategy and plan makes it easier to align the organization to drive consistency of messaging and to help stakeholders understand the role they need to play in its effective execution. Focus and consistency of message and effort over time helps to build the brand, solidify relationships with key constituency groups and position the business for success.
By communicating consistently, honestly, and with the best interests of employees and customers in mind, you will have built a new level of trust and connection with your brand that can serve as the foundation for a new leg of growth. As with the “Now” and “Near” phases, being clear about your intent, the new opportunities, and how you will help meet stakeholder needs is as critical as managing a proactive and consistent communication plan.
It is easy to get complacent as the new normal sets in, but over time, a continued focus and investment in a clear and consistent communication strategy will continue to deliver returns in building your brand and brand loyalty. It will fuel growth, surface new opportunities and help prepare and insulate your business from future challenges and curveballs.
We recognize that with COVID-19, these are unprecedented and challenging times, and knowing how to communicate with core audiences can seem daunting. But by being strategic, using your brand purpose as a guidepost, setting clear communication guidelines, and managing through a Now, Near, and Next approach, businesses can not only successfully navigate through this crisis but also position for longer term success.