Communication during a crisis: the 5 rules you can follow

During times of crisis, it’s essential to communicate with your readers in a way that makes it easy for them to quickly and easily take in what you’re saying. These 5 rules will make that simple for you.

During times of crisis, it’s essential to communicate with your readers in a way that makes it easy for them to quickly and easily take in what you’re saying. 

Let’s face it: people are distracted, scared and often overwhelmed. They have far more on their minds than they would at any other time, which means they have less mental bandwidth to process your message. If anything you say is too long, too complex or in any way ambiguous, they’re likely to miss important information.

And the way you communicate – the channels you use, and even your timing – are every bit as important as the words in your message. So what are the best ways to make your corporate crisis communications as effective as possible?  

Here are the five key items we include in our own, internal Content Copywriting crisis communication checklist. 

One of the silver linings of this current crisis is that we’re all – almost every person on this great big, blue planet – experiencing the same thing. There’s a momentous shared humanity in what’s happening that’s humbling. We’re all in this together. We’re all affected.

So it’s OK to acknowledge that, and acknowledge that people are scared. It makes your brand more real as a communicator, more genuine and more authentic – which is exactly what people want to see right now.

As part of this, apologise for any delays or issues you’re experiencing; but don’t fall on your sword over it. Use the draw of the common, shared human experience of this crisis as your shield.

Then, simply ask for forgiveness and express a deep desire for it to be different. This doesn’t mean your content and communications have to be completely negative or sad. But by the same token, attempting to be really upbeat will just feel out of step at the moment.

It’s tempting to try to ‘soften’ a bad-news message to your readers – be they clients, subscribers or even staff – because you don’t want to scare them or blow anything out of proportion. And it’s true that adding to the general atmosphere of panic isn’t constructive for anyone.  

At the same time, however, ‘softening’ can very easily turn into a mixed message. In a time of crisis, people just want to be told what to do so they don’t have to make what could turn out to be a wrong decision themselves. That means you need to tell them, explicitly and with no equivocation, what you want them to do.

Contrast the following announcements about school closures:

  • “We are encouraging parents to keep their children at home. We appreciate that for some parents that is not possible, so schools will remain open.” – NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian
  • “Schools will be closed from tomorrow, except to the children of essential workers such as our doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and police – this will give them time to plan. This will be temporary, and schools will close entirely from midnight Wednesday.” – New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern

Be a leader in your industry, and give your readers the clear, unambiguous direction they need. Be the brand that cuts through everyone else’s noise with decisive, explicit language and action.

I’ve seen so many brands send out blanket emails to every single subscriber on their database as a knee-jerk reaction to the current crisis. I can guarantee that not one of them has a clear crisis communication strategy and plan – and their readers can tell.

Worse yet, most of them just tell me what they’re changing during the current crisis, and then repeat general information I’m seeing in every single other email I receive. I’ve had messages from brands I haven’t heard from or interacted with in years.  

And none of this endears the brand to me. It just further overwhelms my brain and my inbox.

Instead, make a point of identifying where your current and future customers spend their time online. Segment those customers by how they’ve interacted with your brand in the past. Then tailor your message to each segment on the channel they use most often. And, likewise, know when NOT to communicate.

For example:

  • Imagine you’re the CMO of a gym network that’s just had to shut down. Now you want to encourage people to continue their memberships with online classes. You’ve probably already sent out a bunch of email communications during the crisis about how you’re ensuring you provide a safe workout environment. You also know that your members don’t just come to your gyms to get buff – they love the relationships and camaraderie they build there.

    Why not go beyond setting up online classes to creating Facebook communities for each gym? Then send out a single clear email advising members of the classes, and inviting them to stay engaged in everything they went to your gym for: exercise and camaraderie. That will make them far more likely to stick with you – both during the crisis and after.
  • Or, imagine you’re an exec with an eCommerce mattress brand. You know that most of your customers are only ever going to buy from you once every 5-10 years. You also know that at the start of a crisis, everyone tightens their belts because of the uncertainty. So even if a reader genuinely needs a new mattress, it’s likely to rank close to the very bottom of their priority list.

    Rather than emailing your entire database with how you’re keeping your workforce safe and sanitising your equipment, plan for the future. What’s going to happen after people have been stuck at home for a couple of months, and probably spent far more time on their existing mattress? By that point, they’re more confident of getting through the crisis intact (and also far more aware that their mattress is sagging!)  Creating content now to fill that future customer need will generate far more appreciation for your brand than adding to the noise right now.

It’s totally normal to feel like running for the hills at times. But as we’ve said above, we’re all in this together. And at the end of the day, people just want to be told what you want them to do.

So while it’s important to avoid over-communication during a crisis, and to communicate via the right channels, make sure you don’t stop communicating altogether. Again draw on the shared human experience of this moment. Share positive messages and stories if they gel with your brand, tone of voice and audience. Keep people updated where relevant, and reassure them (within reason!)

Let’s be realistic: very few industries or businesses are booming right now. While we all trust that we’ll somehow get through this experience as a community, it’s going to be a rough ride for many of us. But knowing it’ll be tough doesn’t mean you can sit back and fritter away this time.

Once this is all over (and it WILL be over), the brands and businesses that thrive will be the ones who used their time wisely. They’ll be brands who cut back where they could, but also invested in the long-term strategies they knew would pay off. 

SEO is a prime example of a great investment for this kind of crisis. It’s a long-term strategy that requires time and dedication. You’ve probably found yourself with quite a bit of time on your hands now… Perhaps your normal supply chain is disrupted, so you have no stock to sell through your regular media channels. Or perhaps your budgets for paid ad spend have decreased. 

Either way, why not use the time you would’ve spent on those marketing activities to create SEO content for your website? And if you don’t know what content to create, we can help. We specialise in SEO Content Strategies and can give you a clear, decisive calendar of content to create for your brand that enables you to use this time productively.

We’ll do all the hard work to give you a clear plan of what content you need to create over the coming months. 

Usually, we’d then jump in to actively help you create that content (and we still can!). However, we understand if you’d prefer to DIY because budgets are tight or you have resources you need to redeploy. 

In those cases, let us do the grunt work. We’ll help you to maximise the time you have now during this crisis for your brand’s future, and then explain the exact steps you need to follow.

Let us help you become one of the brands that thrive.

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