Communicating in a Crisis

Hi. I am Kimberly Kayler, president of AOE. We are a consulting firm that provides everything from association management and back-end support operations like HR and accounting to marketing, social media, publishing and training services. We are also experts in crisis communications. 

As a certified and trained professional in crisis communications, I scheduled this Facebook Live chat with you today to share some tips on how to communicate during these times. We do have an official webinar scheduled for Wednesday, April 8 on crisis communications, but I see the need for more informal discussions to guide us through the coming days. This is my first time using the Facebook Live platform, and I don’t have an official script, just some notes, so bear with me. 

I saw a funny meme yesterday that said “I was wondering how every corporation I’ve ever given my email to was handling the Coronavirus.”  You may feel that way too. I have received emails from every yoga studio I have ever visited, Rover (the dog walking App), Door Dash, my dry cleaner, Lyft and Uber, and more.  I am sure you can relate.  And then interestingly, the regular promotions from Target and Kohls keep coming in, and I am guilty of pausing when I got those and asked myself “gee, don’t you know there is a pandemic right now? Is now the time for me to buy that new shirt at Kohls just because I have a coupon?”  I’ll tackle the answer to that question at the end of this chat, but for now, let’s talk about communication in general. How much and what should we communicate?  

My response in most cases is to communicate early and often.  So what does that mean?

First of all, let me point out I am not an HR expert or a medical professional. I will not offer any advice on whether or not you close your office, or how to wash your hands. And second, make sure you follow the guidance/recommendations of government authorities, whether that be your Governor, mayor or CDC. This isn’t the time to disagree with the authorities and make a political statement. 

From a communications standpoint, there are lots of best practices to share. To begin,

  1. If you aren’t yet communicating with your employees, do so immediately. Even if you don’t have all the answers, share what you have figured out. I would suggest communication come from one person, maybe your HR Director, so you don’t have multiple messages going from multiple areas of the company.  And, if you haven’t already formed a crisis team, do so immediately.

  2. In a time of crisis, folks need to know that you are working on it. Ask yourself if your clients need to know about any changes. Did you cancel all business travel?  Have you asked your engineers to not attend meetings with more than 10 people?  What other changes have you made? Are team members working from home? 

  3. Please, please don’t go on to describe what the virus is and tell folks about singing happy birthday while washing their hands, how long the virus lives on a surface, etc.  We are past that.  If you include all that detail, the important part of your message isn’t going to get read. 

  4. If you don’t have all the answers about the upcoming training you are offering, if the project is going to be off schedule because of supply chain issues, etc., simply state just that.

Here are some other tips:

  • It is human nature when we don’t have the answers to over explain. Don’t. State what you do know, what you are working on, and leave it at that.

  • Don’t volunteer any information that you could be held to later on, or comment on rumors or speculation. For example, “we are guessing or heard a rumor that this pandemic is going to impact delivery of materials for jobsites.” If you don’t know it to be fact, don’t mention it.  But, you can still address it by noting that you are working with all subcontractors and material suppliers to determine any potential schedule impacts. 

  • Don’t simply tell folks what you think they want to hear.  It will catch up with you.

  • Don’t comment on politics. This should go without saying, but I saw a few communications at the end of last week from members of our industry that included political commentary.  Leave politics and personal viewpoints out of your communication. 

  • And by all means, stress compassion and a commitment to hearing concerns, adapting to this fluid situation and a promise to continue to communicate. 

With regard to how often you should communicate, the answer is simple: when you have something meaningful to share.  Your crisis team may develop a list of the frequently asked questions you are starting to get so you can evaluate what the key themes should be in your communication.  I don’t advocate sending an email to your target audiences every time someone has a new question, rather, look for common themes. 

So how do you communicate?  At this point, I would suggest email if you have good proper distribution channels in place, as well as posting the information on your website.  While video may be a good option if you have a very large client or member base, make sure you are trained in making such statements.  The benefit of a written statement is that you can have many eyes on it before it is distributed.  The danger with video is that we tend to over explain.

The last thing I want to tackle today is something I have thought a lot about the last few days – do we conduct business as usual?  The AOE team has about 90 members, and I have found myself pondering what direction I should be giving. We have more than 40 clients that have activities, plans and tasks that need to be completed.  I spent the last few days wondering what direction I should give. As a leader, you may be wondering the same. I have come to the conclusion, for our team, the message at this point is that we march ahead and perform our activities with the same care and diligence as always, yet have great awareness and compassion for the fact that those we are working with may be off work due to no longer having childcare available, schedules may be off due to travel changes, or a myriad of other scenarios.  At this time, it is important to move ahead with our activities, to the best of our ability, but doing so with great compassion for ourselves and the world around us.

I think it is also important to have a recognition that people process stress differently. For some it is to buckle down and be task-oriented, while others can find it hard to focus when operating in fear or the unknown. I recognize some of my team members may need a moment to pause and regroup and there needs to be compassion for all. I am reminded by a statement my mom used to make when a squabble occurred between me and my two sisters: fair, not equal.  Treatment and accommodations for team members may not be equal, but it can be fair.  

To wrap up, I hope the one thing you’ll take away from this session is the importance of communicating early and often. I am interested in what challenges and questions you may have, so please comment in Facebook or reach out directly to kimberly.kayler@aoeteam.com.  I plan to host another session in a few days based on the questions I receive. Be safe.

© 2020 by AOE. 

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