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Communication in a Time of Crisis

March 18, 2020
COVID-19 presents an unprecedented need for leadership and communication. What you say now — or don’t say — matters more than ever before.

We are in a war, a war to keep “them” safe. Our “them”. Those who are young, elderly, or immunocompromised — because they are our loved ones, our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, and our employees. Our enemy is not just COVID-19’s communicability and lack of cure — our enemy is the spread of fear and panic.

The global COVID-19 crisis is disrupting lives, now. It will disrupt businesses in the U.S. as it has in other countries. We are experiencing an unprecedented need for leadership and communication. What you say now — or don’t say — matters more than ever before.

Recognize that right now most people are being spammed out by generic support information, so only communicate needed information. Be clear. Be helpful. Consider having communication reviewed by staff with a customer service or HR background, to be sure the human element is addressed. Consider creating a leadership task team to help keep both the internal and external communications on brand.

Before taking off, pilots have a checklist for the safety of the flight. Before pressing “send” on any mass communications to customers or staff, consider creating a communication checklist:
 Does this need to be communicated? •  Is this the best way to communicate X or Y?
 Have we shown empathy to needs or concerns?
 Have we offered a concrete solution or resource to help, if possible?
•  What is the best platform or platforms to use for this message?

Internal communication is as critical, if not more so, than external communication at this time. Your staff are more than your employees. They are the hands-on creators of your product or service. They are your brand ambassadors. They are the face of your business to many of your customers. These are the top three things to communicate to your staff.

1. What does your staff need to know to support customers? Arm them with information - even scripts - to ensure they have the information they need.
 We have split our customer service team into two shifts to maintain the staffing you expect and temporarily increased our hours to better serve you.
 For the health of customers as well as our staff, our team is not travelling but we would be happy to set up a video call with a demonstration (or to send you a sample part).

2. What does your staff need to know to stay safe? The messages below address some of the concerns they may have right now.
 We have worked with our cleaning crew to ramp up the cleaning protocols for our office and common space to meet or exceed current guidelines for your health and safety.
 All company and team meetings will be virtual in support of slowing/stopping the spread of COVID-19 over the next few weeks. Thank you for your help and flexibility in making that happen.

3. What does your staff need to know about policies? Can you change any policies to better support their need for flexibility? Is your healthcare provider doing anything specific which might be helpful?
 If you or someone you are frequently in contact with is immunocompromised, please discuss telecommuting or other options with your supervisor.
 Please, if you are not feeling well, stay home. Our leave policy has been amended to accommodate the current crisis.
 Our healthcare provider offers telemedicine visits. The provider will send members who are diagnosed with COVID-19 a care package of over the counter medication to help as well as cleaning supplies.

This is not a fast-moving crisis in the same way a fire at a plant or a natural disaster might be*. Time is less critical, which gives you space to get messaging to your customers “right” — useful and empowering, where possible — while recognizing that there has been a huge outflow of communication from many sources that has been less than useful. Unfortunately, a few companies have even experienced automation issues that have resulted in communications that were — at best — not relevant to the intended audience and — at worst — untrustworthy.

I’ve been watching many types of communication on this issue, including the good (early communication from The Field Museum and Wyndham Resorts showcasing what they were doing to keep the public safe, as well as staff who interact with the public safe and any changes in policy) and the bad. The least useful communication I’ve witnessed during the COVID-19 crisis came from a large national bookseller (actual email I received):

The least useful communication since…That message lacks any insights into my needs as a consumer. Is the store open? If so, how are they keeping the space safe for customers?  Is there an alternative purchase option I can use such as ordering physical books online or downloading a digital book? How will they update me further? These are simple questions but speak to keeping consumer concerns and uncertainty at the forefront of the communication thought process.

When planning your external communications, think through concerns your suppliers or customers might have. Try to address them. Questions to discuss with your team should include:
• Do your customers need to know about any event cancellations?
– When will you let them know?
– How will their credits or refunds be handled?

• Will there be delays in producing products for customers?
– What is the plan for addressing that?
How are you ensuring there will not be delays?

• Will this situation change any standing orders for your suppliers?
Will your suppliers have concerns about receiving payment?

We can adapt part of the World War II-era, British slogan to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. We must stay calm. And our lives will carry on. But, things will be different, and change is difficult for many people in the best of times. These are not the best of times. It is leaders' job to keep our now from becoming the worst of times. Step one is to tighten up your communication as part of your standard business process.

* This article on Communicating in a Crisis is a great starting point in developing your crisis communication plan.

Alexandria Trusov is an experienced marketing consultant to manufacturers and other B2B companies. Contact her at [email protected] or visit