Communicating in a Crisis

by Mike Sergeant, ex-BBC journalist, international communications coach and PR adviser to CEOs and business leaders and the author of PR for Humans: How business leaders tell powerful stories (Practical Inspiration Publishing, April 2019).

A PR ‘crisis’ used to be thought of as a sudden unexpected and destructive event affecting one company… or perhaps one sector.

The typical playbook would seek to manage such a crisis by:

1) Leading on empathy (acknowledging suffering)

2) Taking responsibility (but not necessarily admitting blame)

3) Promising to put it right (and convincing us it will never happen again).

The current crisis, of course, is completely different in scale and nature. It cannot sadly be contained to one company, one nation, or even one continent.

Most businesses large and small have taken weeks to adjust to this reality.

Some reputations have been enhanced. But many have been tarnished, as CEOs and other leaders fail to adapt.

For a start, the question of blame is obscure and for most companies frankly irrelevant. We are where we are. There is no scapegoat and, despite the endless war metaphors, no real ‘enemy’.

Individual companies cannot usually fix things. Only a tiny number have a direct role to play subduing the virus or treating patients. So, responsibility is hard to demonstrate.

Empathy is still needed. Organisations need to show that they are aware of the individual tragedies brought by the virus and the lower levels of worry and anxiety affecting millions… and billions.

But efforts to sound like you ‘care’ or demonstrate support for ‘good causes’ can easily seem opportunistic and crass.

Many organisations have abandoned their existing marketing and PR campaigns and instead piled headlong into some rather questionable activity.

Examples include:

- Persil running ‘Home is Good’ campaign branding all over its washing powder adverts. This feels like an unnecessary and possibly insincere attempt to be the champions of the lockdown.

- Virgin Media — pushing out a #stayconnected PR drive, to make us all feel better about streaming entertainment and downloading data, while the profits of mobile phone and streaming companies go up.

- BrewDog — showing great energy by converting its facilities to make ‘Punk’ hand sanitiser before finding out that it does not meet medical standards and being criticised for plastering its ‘brand’ over a necessary health product.

These efforts are all in my view examples of jittery PR overkill. All coming from good intentions and well-meaning practitioners, no doubt. But all missing the mark.

Another area of reputational failure is around those individuals and organisations (Richard Branson, Victoria Beckham et al) who have reportedly tried to get taxpayer support, or furlough their staff, when their own bank balances ought to cover their funding needs.

In this high-scrutiny environment, the world is seemingly being divided into COVID heroes and villains as audiences make quick and harsh judgements about corporate communication.

How you approach PR and marketing right now should depend on what kind of company you are.

1) For those businesses genuinely out of action (airlines, restaurants, retailers, cinemas), STOP your above-the-line marketing and PR efforts. Hunker down. Be calm for now. Only take government support if you really need it. Stay out of the spotlight.

2) For those businesses still in action, or even those doing rather well out of it all, reduce PR and marketing to a low level and keep the focus on your own products and services. Don’t try to pretend that you’re leading the COVID response or saving the nation.

Genuine PR in the (often understood) sense of Media Relations is currently on pause.

Journalists are seeing everything through the lens of Coronavirus. Their output is currently almost 100% COVID. But this will quickly change.

Every crisis has a life cycle. And this crisis is no different.

- STAGE 1: Ignorance (‘I don’t know what’s happening’)

- STAGE 2: Denial (‘It won’t happen to me. I don’t care’)

- STAGE 3: Fear (‘Cripes — this is getting really serious’)

- STAGE 4: Acceptance (‘OK, we’re in for the long haul’)

- STAGE 5: Emergence or Relapse (‘I see light at the end of the tunnel’ or ‘the tunnel is collapsing!’)

As we move through the different stages, what is acceptable in marketing, PR and communications changes rapidly. Some of the activity of even a couple of weeks ago now feels odd.

Equally, we must not be overly sensitive in the weeks ahead to being ‘commercial’ once again.

This may feel a bit wrong now. But by June/July, it may feel totally right, as the whole focus moves to getting the economy going.

Just as some advertisers and marketeers missed the mark in early March by being slow to change tone and tack, they could also miss the opportunities of the emergence.

But, as the waves of marketing and advertising go up and down, leaders (owners, CEOs, directors) themselves need to follow a different playbook. Their thing must be CONSISTENCY.

My advice to business leaders is to follow the 3 Cs: be considerate, calm and confident.

CONSIDERATE: Understand how people are feeling. Particularly those within your organisation and communities. Try to give them what they need when they need it. Check in with them as people. Listen to their concerns. Show that you care. Appreciate them. Be a compassionate guide.

CALM: Take out the emotion. There is enough of that around. Stick to the facts. Communicate simply and clearly… regularly but not too often. Don’t try to be charismatic or visionary. Be deliberately calm and honest about the uncertainty and decisions that lie ahead.

CONFIDENT: Despite the uncertainty, we still want the inner confidence of CEOs and leaders to shine through. We will follow those who have a deep belief that the business is fundamentally sound and will emerge, possibly stronger in some ways. Empathy is good — but it needs to be backed up with a clear plan.

Be suspicious of those CEOs, owners or managing directors who are trying to pivot their business 180 degrees in a matter of days. Be worried if the ‘visionary’ leader declares that ‘the world has fundamentally changed and so must we’.

Far from being a time to usher in a completely new strategy, the companies that give me confidence are those that show how the existing strategy is even more important and vital for the long term.

This goes for the communications/PR strategy as well as the business strategy — and of course in good businesses they are perfectly aligned.

My advice: ease off on the daily Coronavirus emails telling customers that you are ‘thinking of them in these challenging weeks’ and that these are ‘unprecedented times’ and the ‘world is being reshaped before our eyes’.

Cut the hyperbole. When you have information to share, share it calmly, quickly and confidently.

As customers, we don’t want to be deluged with saccharine mailshots. But, equally, we do want to know that our favourite businesses are still going and are ready to offer us their products and services and ideas just as soon as they can.

For larger corporations — and the CEOs leading them — it is important to show a sense of global responsibility and a willingness to think afresh about the big challenges facing the world.

So, which companies get good marks so far for communication in this Coronavirus crisis? Again, just my opinion, but I reckon:

- BP, where the new CEO Bernard Looney has restated his commitments to making the company carbon net zero. Whatever you think about the credibility of this plan, Looney has been calm and confident and considerate in his frequent social media posts and updates.

- Tesco which has backed up an incredibly impressive business response to securing our food supplies with a measured, calm and largely fact-based communications campaign explaining clearly how the business is responding to the massive challenge of the crisis.

- HSBC took the decision to temporarily reverse thousands job cuts, because workers wouldn’t be able to get alternative employment at present. Banks are always going to face a lot of criticism at times like these, but the leadership communication from HSBC has so far been relatively transparent and timely.

<Note: these examples are not judgements on customer policies, pricing, service levels or whether the app has been working. I’m talking about top line leadership communications>

Amid great uncertainty, I think the economy we inherit at the end of this crisis will (for better or worse) look remarkably similar to the one we had before.

People will still want restaurants, spas, theatres, cars, fashion, treats and holidays. There will be massive pent-up demand, and it’ll be easier for the economic system to spring back to its previous shape than morph quickly into something completely different.

But some CEOs and businesses will have moved confidently up the reputational ladder. Others will have grabbed for a higher rung, slipped… and now be clinging on much further down.

Join Mike Sergeant for a free PI-Q webinar Communicating in a Crisis on Wednesday 29 April, 1pm BST.

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