To say the last several weeks have been challenging for everyone would be an understatement. As most of us have had to change not only the way we work, but also how we carry out our everyday lives, businesses have also had to change how they communicate with their customers and with the public.  Many companies had no idea how to respond to the current situation. Some froze and did nothing; others went with a “something is better than nothing” approach, and the results were either ineffective or downright cringe-worthy. Another segment, however, hit the pause button and took some time to reconfigure their efforts after gathering information, testing the waters and assembling a new strategy. 

No matter where you or your organization fell on that spectrum, almost all companies were united in the fact that we were not prepared for this disaster. Many valuable lessons were learned, and one of them was that planning for communicating during a crisis is critical.

It All Starts With a Plan

When considering how to engage with your customers, leads, social media community, stakeholders and the public during a crisis, one of the most important elements will be consistency. Start by assembling your team. Who will become responsible for choosing when to put a crisis action plan in motion and supervising the rollout? Who will be responsible for disseminating the information throughout the organization? How will supervisors and leaders stay on top of daily interactions? As an emergency unfolds, the priority should be to first rally the team and make sure all efforts are cohesive as you move forward.

Context is Everything

While the nature of crises and emergencies usually means that you cannot predict what the situation will be and what the specific response should be, one of the first steps must be to begin evaluating the context in which audiences will be receiving your communications and exploring what your brand’s relevance is in relation to the situation you are addressing. In other words, how has the daily experience of life changed for your readers and listeners, and how can your company authentically participate? 

In the context of the current pandemic, for example, a story about a CPA being unable to discuss CARE loans and SBA relief stands out as the perfect example of what to avoid. The accountant is part of a large firm that communicated about their new safe operating procedures that include masks, sanitizer and remote meetings. Still, at least one CPA was not prepared to offer help securing aid and wanted to continue with 2019 tax filings even though deadlines were extended. 

This firm has likely lost at least one customer because they were unable to quickly understand how they could authentically deliver their services in the context of their customer’s new mode of operation.

Measured Timing

In the above example, the financial firm eventually was able to provide assistance obtaining relief funds, but it was weeks later, and the customer had already figured it out another way. Moving fast is critical. On the other hand, companies need to keep the customer’s context in mind when considering the pace of communications. In the earliest times of an emergency, many people are likely to be more focused on immediate needs, such as the safety of their families and securing resources. Trying to do too much during that time will probably come across as insensitive. 

In addition, failing to communicate enough will leave a void that people will fill in with their own ideas. You don’t want to appear to be ignoring a painful situation, or, worse, that you’ve vanished entirely. During the initial shock, stick to sparse messages of support and acknowledgment and monitor the public emotional state for signs of moving forward. This is also the time that the response team should be working double-time to find the way your organization can provide relevant assistance and finding the best way to spread that message so you’re ready to go as soon as your customers are.  

Your Social Media Community

Social media is one of the primary ways that people connect with each other. In fact, Pew Research found that only 31 percent of us see most or all of our Facebook friends in person on a regular basis. During a crisis, social media is where people will go for breaking news and to check in with their friends and families. Emotions will be running high from frightening headlines and personal stories tugging at heartstrings. Joyful promotional posts and pushy ads will be ill-received.

It’s essential for businesses to hit pause on any previously scheduled posts to make sure you’re not interrupting the important connections that are happening on social media. At best, continuing with scheduled posts will be ignored and ineffective. At worst, it could make your brand seem thoughtless and callous.

Instead, shift to posting in the moment and taking the time to do some social listening to learn what’s happening in the world, in your community, and in your industry to get a better idea of what your audience needs from your brand. Maintain a tone of support and gratitude; communicate with honesty and compassion. Offer guidance, provide resources that are relevant to your industry and be helpful. 

Reconsider Your Lead-Gen & Sales Efforts

I’m sure we can all point to at least one off-putting email or advertisement that seemed to be taking advantage of the current crisis to gain attention. If you’re lucky, this approach will only make your brand look out of touch. What’s more probable is that you’ll appear to be trend-jacking or news-jacking to gain unearned exposure and lose the trust of your audience.

Sales efforts, content marketing plans, lead generation pipelines and lead nurturing campaigns are all going to need considerable attention before you can continue. Hit pause on all of them and take the time to fully evaluate the needs of your customers, potential leads and important stakeholders. In the current crisis, there are essential businesses that are booming, some sectors that are limping along, and others on the verge of collapse. Future disasters are likely to have a split as well, and you’ll need to reconsider your audience segments, workflows and messaging to make sure you’re addressing their current needs.

For example, the current situation in the U.S. has leagues of people who have been out of work for weeks who are simultaneously stressed and bored out of their minds. Another large segment is trying to keep things going from home by working and educating over the internet. Then there are all the essential workers who are living an entirely different life compared to everyone else. Trying to address boredom when speaking to essential workers is insulting. Or, imagine an automated lead-nurturing email touting in-person services or expensive products arriving in the inbox of someone struggling to work from home or who has been recently laid off. 

The variety of situations that individuals will find themselves in must result in a transformation of your approach as failing to address a critical way that your audience’s life has changed will have damaging consequences. Hopefully, by this point in an emergency, your team has collected a great deal of information to understand the new context of your audiences and how your company can continue to deliver services in the best way. That way, you can create new audience segments and craft relevant messaging that are aligned with these new experiences. 

The Value of Humanity

No matter what the nature of an emergency is, human beings will inevitably have an emotional response. In business and marketing, we know that making connections with our customers’ emotions is a critical factor to long-term success, and crisis management is no different. What determines whether your organization’s response is successful or misguided is whether you’ve been a good steward of those feelings.

While there may be short-term gains from manipulating emotions and taking advantage of those who are afraid, there are even greater, long-term gains that can be made when companies act with compassion, authenticity and humanity. Maya Angelou has famously said “that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make sure your crisis communication plan and implementation is centered on bringing positive, lasting results for your customers and stakeholders, so they always remember the role you played in making their lives better during a challenging time.