Coronavirus has pushed many workers to home or else raised questions for those employees whose jobs can’t be relocated. Whether dealing with customers, partners, students, employees, or members, the way you communicate is almost as important as what you are trying to say. Those in charge need to deliver clear, concise information that creates clarity. These simple tips, based on my experience as a public relations professional, will help develop strong, clear communication in a time of confusion.
1. Don’t bury your lead. Before this crisis, people were already living with information overload. It’s only gotten worse: email boxes are overflowing and no one has time to read through a long message to figure out your point. So, start with your most important information, whether that is a school closing, disruption of service, or shortage of merchandise.
2. Be direct. This is not the time for flowery language. Be clear and concise, choosing your words with precision for clarity. Aim to educate without intensifying fear or panic.
3. Consider your audience. What is your relationship with your audience (how you serve them — do you set their work hours or provide their child care, for example?) and what drives them (what they need from you and their priorities). Then frame a message that addresses their needs.
4. Be timely. Communicate early and often: that is the hallmark of strong crisis communication. This doesn’t mean impulsive messaging. Take the time to assess the situation and frame a clear message, but do so expediently. Your goal is to reach out before people start emailing or calling with questions.
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5. Anticipate their questions. Use your knowledge of stakeholders to anticipate what type of questions they may have and provide a list of FAQs with clear answers. You could make this a PDF, part of your email, or a page on your website.
6. Provide links. You are likely basing your decisions on expert guidance. Whenever possible, provide a link to that guidance, particularly if it comes from a trusted authority, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or your county or state’s health department.
7. Show compassion. The need for concision needn’t override the responsibility to show compassion. Start with clear, direct facts. Then express empathy for ways in which your choices impact people and leave the door open for questions.
8. Problem solve. The best way to show empathy is to figure out a solution. Hopefully you have spent the last several weeks considering contingency plans to meet the needs of your various stakeholders. Share those plans—not in excessive detail—but so that is easy to understand and brings comfort, and provides agency where possible. Part of communicating effectively and responsibly is providing enough information for your stakeholders to make informed choices about their own actions.
9. Follow up. Your first communication need not include every detail of your plan, particularly when you’re dealing with a moving target, as we all are now. As you find your situation changing in ways that will impact your stakeholders, frame follow-up communications using these same tips.
10. Use all of your communication channels. The best way to reach the most people quickly is a multi-pronged approach that considers your audience and their habits. Think about whom you’re dealing with, your relationship, and how you usually communicate. Most likely, you’re going to want to send an email first, as that is the most direct way to communicate with most people. Afterward, consider various social media channels to share your message and perhaps provide additional information via a link. If appropriate, post a copy of your message on the home page of your website with a link for additional information, or if coronavirus is having a significant impact on your business and stakeholders, create an entire section to deliver information and updates.
11. Be sensitive. This one is very important. If your message is going to upset employees, you have a responsibility to communicate with them first or at least concurrently with other stakeholders. You do not want your employees to learn news that impacts their livelihood second hand.
12. Build a response mechanism. Finally, make sure those you are communicating with have a means of responding to you. If you expect a lot of feedback or questions, you may want to create a specific email address (such as firstname.lastname@example.org) and assign one person to review all messages.
Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein is the owner of Making Headlines PR and a visiting assistant professor in Temple University’s Klein College of Media & Communication.