By Hannah Bolte, Director of Marketing at All Makes Office Equipment in Omaha with 10 years of real-world experience
Over the last 10 to 20 years, corporate communications have changed drastically. It’s hardly reminiscent of what it used to be, thanks to advancements in technology and the 24-hour news cycle and the emergence of social media.
Today, there’s an urgency in needing to respond to an issue, whereas in the past, you might have had more time to collect your thoughts and confer within your company before responding. Today, stakeholders need a response to an issue now — today, not tomorrow. It’s changed the way communication professionals operate — trying to be two steps ahead to anticipate the next potential issue.
Stakeholders expect corporations to have a voice, or a position on things happening in society around them. In some cases, people are walking away from businesses because of their silence, or because of their stance on a certain issue. It’s not enough to be the best at your business anymore. Companies need to be good stewards of their communities and affiliated organizations, brands and causes to appease their stakeholders.
Companies’ reliance on mainstream media to tell its story has also drastically changed. In the past, if the company wasn’t covered by a mainstream media platform, the story wasn’t told in the news. Today, companies large and small have taken that responsibility into their own hands, telling their stories in a journalistic way, using their own media. They’ll post the story, as they wanted it told, online and on social media and are able to promote and advertise it to their target audience, without the reliance on traditional media. If the story is covered by traditional media, that’s an added bonus.
Today, everything a company does has to be strategic.
How to Effectively Utilize Crisis Communication
If the last seven months have taught us anything, it’s that things can change rapidly and there is no playbook on how corporations should communicate in a pandemic. No one, still living, has ever done it, so there’s nothing to look back on and learn from to develop a plan.
Communicating in a pandemic is crisis communication. It’s day-to-day, update-by-update. Because of the uncertainty, companies need to make their messages, clear, concise, consistent and frequent by relying on facts, not fear.
Organizations need to address their stakeholders’ fear and concerns with facts from the experts. The organization needs to remain transparent and communicate with its stakeholders that it has a plan in place, and provide an overview of said plan.
Some examples: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, some local organizations took preemptive measures to ensure the health and safety of its employees and client base by implementing mask requirements prior to the mask mandate.
Another example: When the pandemic first began, many companies were uncertain of how it would financially impact their organization. Some businesses were upfront and transparent with their employees saying just that — ‘We hope to make it through, but nothing is certain. We’re going to keep you all on the payroll for as long as we can. Here’s what we are doing to try to weather this together.’
The latter example is transparent and timely. It shows loyalty to its employees, but addresses the reality of the unknown for the business. Though it may seem grim, it’s honest, and prompts a feeling of togetherness. That particular company’s employees then rallied together to come up with new business models that ultimately helped them weather the first part of the pandemic before they were allowed to reopen.
My advice to the leaders of companies of any size is to be upfront with your team and give them the facts, but have a plan in place that shows you have thought a situation through.
If “X” happens this is our plan; if “Z” happens this is our plan. But, plans need to be agile.
In my experience, I have had the most respect for someone that comes out and says, “I don’t know what this is going to do, or how it’s going to impact our business, but here’s our plan”, and it’s not to incite fear, but it’s about being transparent and honest.
It is important for companies to refer to the experts. This is who the company should be turning to to make decisions and who the company should refer its stakeholders to for information about the pandemic. This ensures consistency.
Knowing how to effectively communicate knocks down barriers both professionally and personally. Not being able to communicate well is the breeding ground for tension, misunderstandings and the loss of productivity. Communication is a key skill that every leader can benefit from.
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that crisis communication is extremely important for a business of any size.