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Communication that Works in a Crisis: Tips and techniques

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Credit: istockphoto.com/gilaxia

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented communication.

In times like these, with the real threat of COVID-19, leaders are under intense pressure to get their messages right. Lives are at risk.

So, here are some tips and techniques from our 20-plus years of practice in high-stakes communication that will help you craft effective, efficient messages.

The 4C formula

Concern: Empathy, sensitivity, humanity come first.

ACtion: Demonstrate that concern by the actions you have taken/are taking to protect your staff, stay open, meet customer demands and expectations

Context: Give people perspective, a way of thinking about your actions.

Call to action: What do you want people to think, feel, say, do as result of message

Let’s see this in action. Let us assume that you are communicating with a concerned employee, let’s call her Nicky, who is worried about working productively from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has school-aged children at home with her. Here are some sample statements to illustrate the principles above:

Concern: I can only imagine what it must be like, Nicky, with kids to school as well as keeping up with the work demands. No doubt challenging.

aCtion: Let me reassure you that we’re doing everything we can to support our incredibly important employees like you who are juggling so much.  This is what we’re doing:

  • Changing work schedules to encourage as much flexibility as possible
  • Tracking progress though Slack
  • Established virtual child care with an experienced provider

Context: We’re all learning new ways to do our work and here at HQ we’re doing everything we can to keep us all in work. We owe that to you Nicky, as much as we do to our treasured reputation to get things done. (Include your company tagline or mission statement, if it’s short).

Call to action: So, Nicky, please join our virtual meet-up today at midday for the latest updates and insights about how we can not only survive COVID19, but thrive. We’re in this together.

“Keep it simple, stupid” or “Keep it stupid simple”

Keep key messages to no more than 30 seconds, 30 words and three sentences.

Remember, they are 10

To use the words of Fleet Street publisher Lord Northcliffe, make your words succinct, concise and consistent in a language that 10-year-olds will understand.

Why?

When people are under stress—indeed panicking—our ability to comprehend and take in facts is significantly impaired.

So:

  • Eliminate jargon.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Avoid negative language (eliminate don’t, not).
  • Speak in active tense.
  • Choose an adjective that sums up people’s feelings (e.g. we’re shocked, we’re committed).
  • Make sure that what you say and do aligns with your values.

Update incrementally

The key to successful communication in a rapidly evolving crisis situation is regular updates.

  • Provide short, sharp updates with a clear call to action (even if it’s to repeat a key action).
  • Counter panic and misinformation immediately. For every negative piece of news, you will need at least six counter messages.
  • Use the medium/channel that is trusted most by your key, priority stakeholders.
  • Video will be powerful and more effective.
  • Choose a central communication hub, e.g. website, Facebook messenger, SMS, and stay there. Avoid the temptation to start something new in a crisis.
  • Use reliable, trusted channels.
  • Update/post at the same time every day, e.g. every 2-4 hours, or first thing in the morning, at lunchtime and at the end of the day.

Leaders are intense scrutiny in a crisis, as are brands. To say it’s a defining moment is an understatement.

Ultimately, our communication will make or break the reputations of not only individual leaders, but brands and even countries.

Jane Jordan

Jane is recognized globally as a leader in crisis management. She is the author of The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management. A former journalist and award-winning PR consultant, Jane’s career spans over 30 years working with senior management teams on strategic communication, reputation management and risk mitigation in Australia, New Zealand and North America. Her work is evidence-based and derived from a four-stage methodology that was pioneered at The Jordan Templeman Group, a media training company she co-founded and led from 1997-2001. Jane is now offering coaching and strategy sessions via Zoom on best practice crisis communication to support clients globally. Contact her at janie@janejordan.com.au.  

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