In this kind of situation, a business’ first instinct might be to batten down the hatches and stop communicating altogether – shutting the doors to all media enquiries. Here’s a few reasons why that may not be the best idea:
- The narrative is controlled by someone else. If you let someone else tell your story, chances are they won’t reflect your messaging, and may even get it wrong.
- You risk alienating your audience. One of the worst things anyone can hear when worried is the sound of silence. Explaining and updating your audiences firstly shows that you understand what is happening, and secondly, reassures that clients are in safe hands.
- A relationship with the media isn’t a tap that can simply be turned off and on at a time of your choosing. When you reach calmer waters and want to reengage with the media, you’ll likely find it far more difficult.
So, once you have established that you should continue communicating when you find yourself in rough waters. What next? Here are six steps to communications success in a crisis.
In an ideal world, you would be able to prepare for every possible negative scenario – sadly, the reality is that there can be unforeseen obstacles that will need to be addressed. Don’t panic. It’s never too late to plan. Remember, this should continuously be reviewed as the situation evolves. What might have been appropriate on day one, is likely to no longer be on day twelve.
Anticipate potential questions and prepare communications for the trickiest scenarios. Responding to queries in a timely manner is particularly important in a crisis, and preparing materials in advance expedites the process.
2. Align messaging
You may find that you have a list of seemingly disparate groups of stakeholders, each of which may have their own sets of priorities and worries. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating with them; each needs to be addressed in their own way, with information that is tailored to each group. However, the core messaging that runs through each piece of communication should be consistent for all stakeholders.
3. Timing is key
How you communicate is just as crucial as what is being said, and timing your communications well can be a fine balance. Crucially, you want to inform stakeholders when you are able to provide material facts and information – but if you are aware that this will take a significant amount of time, it’s wise to communicate this too.
Careful consideration must be given to the order in which stakeholders are contacted, making sure that it is at the right time for your business. However, bear in mind, that news can spread, and the time between groups of stakeholders being informed should be kept to a minimum.
4. Be honest
There is little worse than finding out a business you have put your faith in has misled you. Trust can very easily be broken when communications are handled poorly, and is extremely difficult to recover – just ask any politician.
Set out the facts clearly and concisely, and bring context to the situation. Address what this all means to your stakeholders, and manage expectations about what you expect to come next. Remember, you may understandably not (yet) have all the answers – explain how you will be working on this. Don’t make hasty assumptions, and above all, don’t mislead.
5. Be mindful of tone
Remember that whatever you say or do is going to be interpreted not by a faceless group of stakeholders, but individual people. You’re not speaking to pension schemes, you’re reaching out to trustees and scheme members.
Consider how your message will resonate with them, and how your decisions will affect them. It’s always jarring (and potentially alarming) when a business suddenly changes the way it communicates. By keeping ‘on brand’ in the way in which you are communicating, you are providing a level of continuity, even in the roughest storms.
6. Update when possible
In times of trouble, people seek reassurance. It’s not enough to provide a single memo when an issue arises and questions will naturally remain – what happened next? Is the issue resolved? Should I be concerned?
It’s at times like these that it’s even more important for communications to be in the loop with all parts of the business. It should be seen as one of the central hubs for information to flow through. Stakeholders should never feel that they have been deliberately left in the dark.