In a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses and their customers are left in the lurch. Follow these steps to communicate effectively with your audience during this or any other crisis.
The unexpected coronavirus pandemic has affected organizations of various sizes, especially SMBs, across many industries worldwide. Businesses in retail, travel, hospitality and service sectors are particularly impacted. Many organizations might be asking during this global health crisis about effective crisis communication strategies.
"Crisis" here refers to any unexpected event that threatens public safety, your business's reputation and/or your organization's finances. As Clint Fontanella said in the HubSpot blog, there are different types of crisis:
- Natural (e.g., pandemic, earthquake, hurricane)
- Financial (e.g., your company can't afford to pay off its debt)
- Personnel (e.g., an employee's unethical behavior or misconduct)
- Organizational (e.g., your company significantly wronged its customers)
- Technological (e.g., system breakdown).
No matter what type of crisis your business is facing, it's imperative to communicate effectively with your internal and external stakeholders. I would like to provide some recommendations for how to do this.
1. Prepare a crisis communication plan.
Although crises often come unexpectedly, you can prepare by creating a crisis communication plan and a crisis management team. Generally, the plan outlines the goals, members of your crisis management team, key audiences, steps to take when crisis emerges, how to communicate with the public (e.g., on your social media channels and in your published content or official statements), and how to prevent the issues from happening or (in the case of natural crises) at least from hurting your company again.
You can draft your own unique crisis communication plan for your organization or download templates from online resources. Even if you use a sample template, you'll need to customize your plan based on your business's needs and by crisis type. For example, the way you communicate with customers during a natural disaster (including a global health crisis like COVID-19) will be different from how you publicly address an organizational crisis (such as issues with your products or services).
It's also vital to clearly define who will be on your crisis management team. These are the people who will work together to analyze the situation, identify possible solutions, and communicate with the key audiences. [Read related article: From COVID-19 to Hurricane Season: Disaster Preparedness for Small Business]
2. Put the customer first.
Crisis usually brings up strong negative emotions. If your company makes mistakes, your unhappy customers may write negative comments on review sites like Yelp or on social media. When this happens, don't play the blame game. Try to foster a supportive and collaborative rather than defensive communication climate on your social media, including your company blog. As I mentioned in this article, there are productive ways to respond to unhappy customers if you see negative comments on your social media pages. These are some possible responses:
- Offer discounts for a future purchase of your products or services.
- Contact the customer directly to apologize.
- Change the policy that caused the issue.
- Offer a refund.
The research findings suggest that changing corporate policy is the response most customers prefer. Try to find a solution by communicating with your customers. This open communication will help you solve the problems, reduce the negative impact and restore your brand image.
3. Communicate with the public quickly and accurately.
Speed is key, but you can't sacrifice accuracy. There's a lot of fake news on social media amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Inaccurate information can cause more harm and make your key audience panic in a crisis. Make sure all information and supporting materials you post on your website and social media or provide to journalists as public responses are accurate. Constantly provide updates to reduce uncertainty, anxiety and rumors. If possible, designate a single spokesperson for your company. All of the information you send out via different channels – mass media, social media and your company website – must be honest, open, transparent and consistent. [Read related article: How to Communicate With Your Customers During the Coronavirus]
4. Take advantage of all communication channels.
Communicate with your audience via multiple channels, such as email, text, a 1-800 customer service phone number, voicemail, your website and social media. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses need to close down or change their hours. In this case, you need to update your information on multiple channels. Provide updates not only online, but also via traditional channels. For instance, update your voicemail message and put a sign on the door of your store.
Some companies are still operating by using a different model, such as selling products online or doing telemedicine for medical appointments. Notify your customers about any changes or new options in your service. Your office or store may be closed, but you should still check its voicemail and return your customers' calls. For example, a customer may have ordered a product from you before the crisis but can't pick it up because your store is closed. In this case, they may call, email or text you, so keep an eye on all these channels, and definitely respond to them.
5. Use social media as a crisis communication tool.
Social media is widely used as a crisis communication tool. For example, many organizations use Twitter to communicate with their customers during a crisis. You can post company updates and notifications on Twitter as often as necessary. Your audience can retweet and respond to you and other Twitter users.
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Twitter outlined four ways brands can connect with their audiences during the pandemic: inform, connect, entertain and help. For example, you can update your customers with relevant information, offer limited free services to entertain people during the social distancing period, or provide free online courses to help people adjust their lifestyles. Twitter highlights Clorox, Salesforce, Pinterest and LinkedIn as examples of companies using these tactics particularly well.
In addition to social media like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and YouTube, you can use your company blog as a crisis communication tool. For example, business.com has a forum for its community of industry experts and SMB owners to share their advice and experiences with each other during the coronavirus health crisis. It also offers a COVID-19 business resource hub of expert advice, tips and solutions to get SMBs through this difficult time.
It's an important trend for organizations to use social media as a crisis communication tool. However, each crisis is different. Consider the nature of the crisis and situation to choose the appropriate communication channels and messages.
6. Conduct post-crisis evaluation and follow-up communication.
Usually, the intensity of a crisis diminishes over time. When a crisis is over, you can evaluate how your company handled it. These are some questions you could ask yourself and your team:
- What strengths did we show during this time?
- What weaknesses were exposed?
- How are we doing now?
- What could we do differently next time we're in crisis?
If you evaluate your performance and responses from during the crisis, you can learn from the experience and better prepare for the future. You may also need to do some reputation repair and follow-up communication. If you promised customers or the media to provide continuous updates on the recovery of your business, deliver on your promise. You can use social media and other channels, such as emails and your website, to keep your audience up to date during the recovery stage.
Crisis communication can be challenging. It's important to be prepared, honest and responsive. Provide constant updates to your audience via multiple channels, effectively using social media as a communication tool. After the crisis settles, evaluate your crisis-time performance, and follow up with your audience.
Hopefully, the current global health crisis will be over soon. Let's help each other and get through it together.