How to communicate when the world is in crisis

By Callum Jackson, Account Executive

The importance of maintaining a sense of connection and community during a crisis is probably one of the commonest tropes you’ve read over the past few weeks. But as often as this is said, it bears repeating: communication plays a central role in all of our lives, but never more so than in times where government guidelines, business updates and the latest scientific and medical information being transmitted well could mean the difference between businesses failing and thriving, between people living and dying. Communication is, therefore, literally vital.

What’s more, being confined indoors for such long periods of time tends to lead to more people reading more, and more widely. This presents a useful opportunity for communications specialists and PRs to supply journalists and their readers both with the information they need, and more than ever, updates on how business is weathering the storm or even flourishing, and how that might affect the end user.

But communication isn’t a straightforward science or art at the best of times. Below are some key approaches to consider taking when communicating during a crisis.

1. Know thyself

In all sub-sectors of the comms industry, from advertising to government communications and everything in between, inauthenticity stands out like a sore thumb, and badly thought-through messaging or imagery can reek of it. Take Pepsi’s heavily pilloried 2017 ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, the imagery of which attempted to position the soft drink – and the business producing it – as a saviour of divided and oppressed communities. Accused of seeking to capitalise on the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi rightly pulled the commercial and apologised for missing the mark. Interrogating what your business or client’s business stands for, what it does well, what its goals are and, most importantly, what it is not in the business of (in the case of Pepsi, saving the world) is essential to creating authentic comms. By all means talk about doing good, but make sure it’s good you’re actually doing and that that’s a central part of what you do.

2. Read the room

Being aware of your audiences’ needs is two-fold. First, it’s about identifying the topics that consumers of news want and need to hear about, and secondly, it’s about being sensitive to audiences’ anxieties and preoccupations. In an environment where companies are asking some staff to take pay cuts and others to be furloughed at 80% of their salary, all while social distancing, money saving advice, working from home tips and information on employee rights are subjects of interest and necessity to journalists and readers. Listicles of the best luxury summer getaways are not. Think about what your business or client is doing that might directly help those who are worst affected and use that as a springboard for your communications messaging.

3. Predict the future

In late 2019, few of us could have foreseen the sheer magnitude of a potential pandemic, nor indeed its short-term and residual effects on the economy, society and the individual. However, as professionals in charge not only of spreading the good news but also of putting out reputational fires, our duty is to game various scenarios – sorted by likelihood and impact – pre-empting possible outcomes and preparing for the negative fallout as well as the positive opportunities a situation might present. Looking ahead to identify these ‘opportunities’ is not per se a cynical attempt to boost business reputations or commercial outcomes. It can and should involve looking ahead to ascertain the potential silver linings, gifts in disguise and hidden blessings that come along with a crisis. One unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a reminder of the warmth, appreciation and even love we feel towards the frontline workers of the NHS. If yours is the company that manufactures their uniforms, builds their machinery or produces their personal protection equipment, you should be proud of that and should let others know too. All this requires foresight, however – the ability to identify both the risks and positives of a dire situation.

4. Adapt your product offering

Shouting from the rooftops about something you do well, especially when it has a net good impact on the world, is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, a surprising number of businesses are actually quite bad at telling us what’s good about them. Cue the PR professional. But that quality of self-promotion – not in the sneering, braggartly sort of way; but rather the recognition that telling your story is how people get to know you – only stands up when what you’re promoting really is good, both morally and commercially speaking. If you are planning a campaign showing that your client, The Big Bad Oil & Gas Company Ltd., is doing wonders for the planet, it had better be investing heavily in wind and solar, offsetting its carbon output and cleaning up natural areas affected by its commercial activities, and not just paying lip service to environmental conscientiousness. And if your client isn’t doing those things, it’s time to advise them, as their trusted consultants, to do so. Too many PRs are cautious of recommending product and operational changes that require significant investment for fear of clients’ eyes rolling back into their heads with ‘dollar shock’. But if you want to be known for doing something good, you had better do it well.

5. Take advantage of digital

It comes as no surprise that shares in videoconferencing services such as Zoom (NASDAQ: ZM) have just about doubled since late January (up to $142.80 from $70.44 at the time of writing). As demand for online services increases due to prolonged social distancing and isolation measures, so too does the need for journalists, and therefore PRs, to produce quality digital content that speaks the language of technology. Rather than asking how your brand is changing or about the latest appointment to the board, journalists, readers and consumers are increasingly asking, ‘How does your client’s offering help us do business, manage our money or lead better lives by harnessing smart data, open finance, AI, etc.?’ Or more generally, ‘How can I do all the things I’m used to doing and need to do without leaving my house?’ Most banks provide online banking, most insurers allow digital policy purchases and claims, most lenders enable virtual applications; but if your client is lagging behind, it’s time for both of you to catch up.

6. Put a relevant twist on business as usual

“But our business doesn’t do anything to do with viruses,” is a natural reaction to a crisis that no one saw coming and that stands to meaningfully affect the global economy for years to come. But, as well as being natural, it is also limiting. Thinking creativity about the ways clients’ product offerings and operations do, in some way, affect the outcome of a crisis does not have to extend to preventing the spread of a disease or accelerating the creation of a vaccine. It may be that your lending client can offer mortgage holidays for those financially impacted by the pandemic or that your supermarket client can designate special hours for the elderly and for key workers. Showing your worth in a crisis does not require you to be a central cog in the machine, nor does it need for you to dominate the narrative in order to have cut-through. Do your bit, however small, and then tell us about it.

About me

I joined Cicero/AMO as an Account Executive in the Corporate Communications team in 2019. I previously worked in-house at an international human rights charity in finance and communications, after graduating with a BA in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Middle Eastern politics from the University of London. I currently advise clients across the banking, insurance, pensions and fintech sectors and I specialise in financial services, third sector and European communications.

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Callum Jackson

Account Executive