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6 key strategies for business communications during a pandemic—or other ongoing crisis
A few weeks ago, I was searching for a physiotherapist, found one nearby, and checked out their website. I was greeted with a sharply worded, military-style communication about their Covid-19 protocols.
In the words of the Mandalorian (or close enough), is this the way? In my view, the military-style communications of a health care provider during a pandemic came across as a little tone deaf.
Business communications are always important—for building recognition, trust, engagement, goodwill, community, brand—but never more so than during a crisis.
To discuss how best to communicate during the current challenging and stressful times, or any ongoing crisis, I recently sat down (virtually) to chat with Shira Miller. Ms. Miller is the Chief Communications Officer of a $2 billion corporation. She’s also a TEDx speaker, writer, certified coach, and one of the smartest communicators I know.
This is the way:
Leaders: Do respond, and do so quickly
Too basic? Well, one business I follow did not take any steps to acknowledge the pandemic until May, a full two-and-one-half months after the pandemic began.
Of course, leaders first need to take great care that the information they provide is accurate and verifiable. And it’s easy to become paralyzed in crisis.
But the void in information from this company was not reassuring, and naturally led to confusion amongst staff and a loss of confidence in clients.
Leaders need to be visible, and more present than ever in times of crisis.
As Ms. Miller notes, “People need to know someone is at the helm; someone is looking out for the employees and clients. People are seeking reassurance and guidance. It’s so important to immediately show leadership. Do not pause.”
In spite of any lapse in communication, it’s always possible, and advisable, to simply pick up the baton, acknowledge the lapse, and then carry on with consistency.
Understand your target audience and communicate with empathy
Consider your key stakeholders, employees, and clients. Consider how the crisis/event affects them.
“Step into the shoes of your target audience. Understand what people are going through. People are distressed and anxious and don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s so important to remember that, and react with empathy, understanding, and support,” says Ms. Miller.
Human-centred empathic messaging has a much greater impact than a formal, all-business message. During tough times, it’s most important to communicate in a manner that builds a sense of understanding, togetherness, and connection.
And especially for internal communications, formally worded announcements and messaging only reinforce hierarchical structures and build distance, rather than bring employees and team members together.
Keep changing the message. As the situation changes, it’s necessary to continually ask how the latest developments affect your audience, and respond accordingly.
For example, Ms. Miller notes that in her company, “We initially responded with safety messaging, then it turned to general guidance, and then we tried to offer context. You want to be responsive without getting caught up in being perfect. Perfect didn’t matter at the time.”
Keep the big picture in mind, and change and adapt your message.
“Let people know you’re there, and as things progress, make them aware: here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re helping, here’s how we’re changing our business to help you,” says Ms. Miller.
Transparency and honesty
Organizations and their leaders need to lift the curtain, and be transparent and open. Humility and honesty will go far. Acknowledge what you know, and what you don’t know—you’ll in no way diminish your leadership; on the contrary, you’ll invite trust and respect.
Ms. Miller concurs: “It’s okay to say ‘we don’t know, but we’re staying on top of this, looking at the latest guidance and directives; we’re staying here. We’re with you.’ That’s reassuring, and it’s much better than pretending all is well or that nothing has happened.”
When panic or anxiety is present, it’s natural for people to become frustrated. When we’re anxious and frustrated, we don’t need complexity. We need ease.
And as the Covid-19 challenge wears on, people are not only anxious, but also overwhelmingly tired and isolated. As Ms. Miller observes, “Look at all the issues we’ve been dealing with; not just a pandemic, but racism, hurricanes, civil unrest, politics … People are stressed, exhausted, and turning inward. What’s needed is peace of mind, easy solutions, and comfort. No hard sell. Aim for inspiration, comfort and support.”
Keep the (focused, beneficial) communication flowing
It’s almost impossible to communicate too much during a crisis, although there is one caveat: In a time of information overwhelm, your communications must be laser focused. For internal communications with your team, there should be a constant flow of actionable, relevant, focused information coming from a single source.
The key for both internal and external messaging, as Ms. Miller says, is to remember, “Your message must be of service, of interest, and of benefit to your target audience. If it’s not of service and value, people are going to tune you out.”
The Covid-19 pandemic will remain ongoing, as will the attendant communication challenges. The situation is dynamic, and a certain amount of instability, pressure, and uncertainty will persist well into the future.
One thing that won’t change, however, is the applicability of the principles outlined above. Moving forward, it will help to keep them in your communications arsenal.