Brands are put to the test in times of crisis, with their reputations hanging in the balance depending on how they respond. Several weeks ago, the types of crises facing brands were, more or less, ones that they could plan for. Anticipated events ran the spectrum from impending to unlikely, but they could still have plans in place for how to tackle internal and external messaging and daily operations.
The arrival of COVID-19 has thrown brands a curveball, shuttering individual businesses and entire countries. To say that times are concerning and uncertain is an understatement, and that’s why it’s more important than ever to home in on your target—seeking to understand what’s going through their minds and lives right now and what they’re expecting from your brand in the current climate.
The good news is that any previously prepared crisis communications plan is likely to have some application. While your plan won’t align perfectly with these unprecedented times, a little reframing can go a long way to put your brand on track to carry on and do so both successfully and authentically.
Here are three steps to help you ensure your brand’s crisis messaging speaks appropriately to your target in this moment and underscores your commitment to delivering a positive experience—however that may look during these times.
1.) Re-examine your plan. We all know that cooler heads prevail, which is why having an established and well-documented crisis communications plan is essential. If you have one, you already have critical structures and mechanisms in place—procedures, protocols and approval guidelines—and those are unlikely to change, even if your previously prepared scenarios aren’t pandemic-specific. Now’s the time to revisit each of the components of your plan and retool them as needed for today’s unique situation. You’ll want to:
- Classify and prioritize the aspects of the event that most significantly impact your brand
- Understand how the crisis is going to be monitored and by who, especially when information and recommendations are constantly changing
- Ensure action items are clarified and understood by everyone—this is imperative given ever-shifting demands
- Identify, and potentially reprioritize, stakeholders—outlining in detail who should receive what communication and when
- Review and, if needed, adjust RASCI roles (i.e., responsible, approval, support, consultants, inform)
- Stay apprised of how other brands are communicating during this time, as there will be plenty of great examples and learnings of what to do and what not to do
2.) Craft appropriate key messages. Gil Bashe, managing partner, global health, Finn Partners, says it best: “Great communications are not just about the information but creating positive experiences, even under difficult circumstances.”
In applying the lens of COVID-19, consider how you’re communicating and which of your values are most critical and which need to be adapted for the crisis to maintain trust. You must lead with empathy, steer clear of seemingly self-serving messages and avoid virtue signaling, which is when a brand expresses its values without actually taking actions to live out those values. With every brand putting out statements and ongoing messaging around COVID-19, it’s more important than ever that your key messages are sensitive to and meaningful for your target.
Much like there are five love languages, there are also five apology languages. The premise is that people need to hear an apology in the language they align with in order to accept it. Although the current crisis isn’t something your brand caused or needs to apologize for, these apology languages are helpful in crafting messages to address your target’s fears in the moment. Here is a look at how apology languages can be applied during the current pandemic:
- Regret: Express remorse regarding the situation and empathize with how your target is affected
- Forgiveness: Apologize for the inconvenience the crisis is having on your brand’s operations and ability to meet target expectations in the usual way
- Repentance: Let people know that you’re trying to function as best as you can in these conditions
- Responsibility: Detail how your brand will continue to serve people throughout the situation
- Restitution: Explain what you’re doing to make things right or to be especially helpful in these extraordinary circumstances (and as we all eventually return to normal, together)
Because your target comprises people with different personalities, it’s best to include all five apology languages in your messaging to help ensure they see that you’re committed to caring for and doing right by them amid tough times.
3.) Prepare for your comeback. Even if your brand didn’t fully shut down, it doesn’t mean you aren’t reopening to some degree. At some point, we’ll all be coming out on the other side of this, and when we do, your brand will need a moment for a brief reintroduction. Everyone’s expectations will likely have changed as a result of the pandemic. The shift may not be drastic, but this is an unprecedented time in recent history that will reshape target motivations moving forward. It is your job to think through how your brand will reopen, resume and repair—and now’s the time to think about that. You’ll need to clearly communicate the How and Why of your return so that people know what to expect as you ramp back up—and how your brand might serve them in new, different and potentially better ways.
As COVID-19 has revealed, things can go sideways really quickly, which is what makes crisis communications planning so imperative. By preparing messaging and defining protocols in advance, you’ll be able to better weather the storm, serve your customers and elevate your brand’s prominence—even as the circumstances are stacked against you. And if you don’t already have a plan in place, there’s no time like the present to dig in.
Interested in learning how establishing an effective crisis communications plan can help your brand now and in the future? Email Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a call.