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How to handle communications in a crisis

Apr 06, 2020

Whether you’re reaching out to employees, customers or the media, getting communications right during a crisis or a period of great change can be stressful in and of itself. You’re under pressure and in the spotlight. Get it wrong and your carefully constructed reputation could be the next crisis.

Ask Boeing, whose initial lack of transparency after two 737 Max crashes left the company reeling from a PR standpoint even before the plane was grounded. 

Or Apple, whose response to a bug that let people listen in on FaceTime conversations was, “We’re aware of this issue and we have identified a fix that will be released in a software update next week.” That rote-sounding message was no fix for customer anger.

External gaffes grab headlines, but poor internal communications can affect organizations just as much. Inadequate communications to and among employees cause large companies an average loss of over $60 million a year, studies have found

Here are some tips to help you get your message across and avoid a communications disaster when bad news or unforeseen events put your company under pressure.

Tips for external communications

  • Have a plan. If your product goes haywire, your ad backfires, or a calamity affects your community, you’ll be a lot less frazzled if you have a communications plan before the trouble starts.
    Every plan should include a crisis communications team that receives training in handling emergencies or managing in difficult times. You should designate an executive to serve as the face of the organization during a crisis. For a financial crisis, the CFO is a good choice. If you suffer a data breach, the CIO should be involved.
    Of course, the chief executive will communicate, too. But people expect to get messages from the top, and they’re often unspecific. Hearing from executives in charge of the specific area where the crisis hit shows people you’re taking the issue seriously and doing something about it.
  • Test it out. A written plan is important, but it’s even better if you act out a scenario. Have the crisis team respond in a simulation exercise to angry customers, tough questions from reporters, worried investors, and a public upset by events that change the way you do business. People learn and remember by doing, so lessons from a simulation are more likely to stick than those learned from a training manual. You don’t have to devise scenarios yourself—many software programs will do it for you.
  • Monitor social media. Social media has dramatically shortened the news cycle, and it’s critical to make your voice heard right away. Twitter and Facebook are also great vehicles for communicating updates, but they may be rife with rumors and fake news. Make sure your team monitors references to your company and corrects misleading information without being defensive or shrill. 
  • Review results. After the crisis, discuss what went well and what didn’t. Incorporate your findings into your crisis plan so that you’ll manage even better in the future.

Tips for internal communications

  • Explain changes. Keeping employees informed of changes is critical to morale, especially in times of distress. Employees are also more likely to accept change if they feel it’s justified, an academic study found. Be sure to designate someone workers trust to lead internal communications.
  • Be consistent. Mixed messages from executives drive employees nuts. It’s fine to tailor announcements to the needs of different groups, but have the crisis team review them first to avoid spreading inaccuracies and confusion.
  • Encourage dialog. Employees are bound to have questions, and answering them shows you care and prevents the spread of rumors. There’s nothing like an in-person forum for establishing trust. If that’s not possible, consider an online forum and designate someone on the crisis team to handle employee questions on a daily basis.

Disasters and bad news happen. But if you plan ahead and communicate with care, you’ll emerge with a solid reputation, helping you recoup your losses much sooner than you otherwise would.


Deron J. Kling
Senior Manager
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