A quick guide to simple, honest, human communication in a crisis

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

So you’re in the midst of a crisis and you’re finding your crisis communications plan (if you had one) isn’t running as smoothly as you’d hoped.

As you battle through an ever changing situation, you are no doubt also dealing with long hours, high stress and a torrent of demands from customers, employees and leadership. At this point you are likely to be either sending out communications at a rate never seen before without having much time to plan or reflect, or you are paralysed as decisions and information fail to trickle down from the top and you don’t know what you can do to help reassure people.

First of all - stop, make a drink and take a five minute breather.

Now we are sitting comfortably, let me reassure you that this is not at all uncommon. Very few organisations have a perfect communications setup, and a crisis will expose any fissures so that they can appear as gaping canyons.

But these are problems to address at a later date, the focus right now is doing what you can with what you have, and going back to basics to make your comms as effective, and manageable, as possible. All of these tips can be applied equally to internal or external communications, and the abiding mantra is ‘simple, honest, human’:

1. Channels

You may already have established channels with clear and specific purposes but it doesn’t hurt to remind everyone what those are. Where will people be alerted to the latest updates and where more information can be found? These might not be on the same channel – for example, using text message to provide alerts that signpost them to a dedicated page on your website or intranet.

Don’t fall into the trap of putting everything on every channel – the urgent and important things might get lost or people may feel overwhelmed. Streamline and use the most appropriate channel for each job. New channels can be established if there is a glaring gap in your current channel strategy, but try to keep things as simple as possible in order that they can still be well managed and effective.

2. Audience

Are you reaching all of your audiences directly? During times of crisis, people can feel anxious and are more likely to look for information from reliable sources. Try to ensure that each of your audience groups is receiving communications directly on a regular basis, as appropriate. During a crisis, regular is likely to mean weekly, daily, or even hourly especially if a situation is fast moving and constantly changing. Regularity may be different for each group, depending on the level of impact.

3. Messages

Sometimes it can be difficult to craft a perfect message during a fast changing environment. The best you can do is keep things simple, honest and human. By keeping things simple, you can focus on the key information and avoid anything that might be unclear or too unknown. Check facts as far as is practically possible but don’t allow this to slow down or halt communications when speed is of the essence. You can always include a line that says it’s correct to the best of knowledge and you’ll update if more information becomes available.

If there is nothing new to report, then communicate that anyway. Remember, the majority of people in your organisation aren’t privy to the discussions taking place in comms and among leadership. Silence can cause anxiety and unease, and simply telling people the situation remains unchanged but that teams are working through different aspects can go some way to alleviate worries.

4. Feedback

Make sure people have a channel to ask questions or raise concerns. You may need more than one channel with different purposes e.g. an urgent channel for anything directly related to the crisis, and a non-urgent one for general concerns or questions. Be clear how this feedback will be responded to i.e. individually or collated and published as part of an FAQ communication.

5. Management and leadership

Encourage them to be as visible as possible and provide support for them to do so with briefings, presentation tools or even some coaching. Encourage them to gather and share feedback as much as possible. Most importantly, encourage them to follow the ‘simple, honest, human’ advice.

6. Measurement

It is not realistic to provide any complex measurement methods during a crisis, however it is useful to provide leadership with a regular report on the activities undertaken, along with any measures or feedback you do have. Not only does this help your leaders with ongoing decision making but it also helps to underline the critical importance and value of communications during this time, and can justify additional resources that might be required.

If you are currently struggling with any of the above and would like some help to see things more clearly, make an easy-to-follow plan or just work out next steps, please get in touch. I have a range of simple, quick services that could get you back on track in a matter of hours.