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Corona: 12 tips for communication in a deep crisis

This weekend, I received once again inquiries from communicators, board members and companies about how to best communicate during the Corona crisis. What information is important? What should be left out of the conversation? Who is actually talking? And what about the right timing?

These are somewhat surprising questions for me – but obviously there is still a certain need to answer them. Reason enough for me to summarize some (hopefully) practical recommendations and principles, and to get my blog going again after two years of abstinence. Welcome back!

So here are a few tips for communicators, companies and institutions. By the way, these are not only valid during the Corona crisis, but can also be used in any other critical situation.

  1. Stick to the facts.
    Sounds simple, but it is indispensable. In times of crisis, the situation is often confusing. Contradictory information and fake news are spreading like wildfire. Social Media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp in particular are breeding grounds for it. Recently, the word „Infodemic“ has been used to describe it: Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech giants have joined forces to fight Corona virus fake news. For communicators it is mission critical to separate the wheat from the chaff. That’s why we’re the gatekeepers. That means: researching, reading and evaluating – over and over again. And not falling into the trap of speculation. Tip: Also communicate what you currently don’t know!
  2. Only use credible sources.
    According to the latest survey of the Edelman Trust Barometer, 63 percent of those questioned believe that the communication released by their own employer is the most credible. By comparison, only 58 percent say the same about information from a government website and 51 percent say this about information from traditional media sources. For this reason, communicators need to be particularly careful here. Almost all media have set up extensive special reports on COVID-19. Meanwhile you can find live blogs everywhere, even on special topics such as marketing or football. However, these specials and blogs are not only provide regular updates but also correct information again and again.
  3. Keep it simple.
    Whenever possible, follow the KISS principle (Keep it simple and stupid). According to German Press Agency (DPA), the upper limit for optimal comprehensibility is 9 words per sentence. Do not use internal or quirky company jargon or too many technical terms. But also, don’t try to repeatedly explain new vocabulary, which is already common knowledge, either. It is better to keep it short and to communicate more frequently instead (see #8).
  4. Provide context.
    Whenever a decision has to be announced: people are interested in the why. This reduces the feeling of uncertainty. What is needed here is not superficiality, but the circumstances associated with a particular set of decisions. The communication can be quite short and concise, but the main principle should be that it is comprehensible. (see KISS principle).
  5. Define your own POV.
    In crises, people look for orientation. What is the company’s position on COVID-19? Are my employees more important to me than the short-term revenue? Or is it vital for the company’s survival that everything continues as smoothly as possible? How do we keep production running without endangering anyone? The issue: Rarely, all relevant information is available to get the communication started. This is where defining your own position helps. So, what is the companies POV on the respective issue, in this case COVID-19? There is also potentially a great opportunity for gaining the reputation: Instead of perfume, the luxury company LVMH now produces hand sanitizer ­– free of charge. And in doing so, LVMH landed a smart PR success. However, be aware: It is the individual perspective that counts. Right and wrong can look completely different depending on your perspective. Don’t forget to rely on your values as a guiding principle.
  6. Keep the balance.
    Not every change in a crisis is an escalation. Not every critical question is an attack, and not every comment an assault. Although it is difficult: reflect carefully and remain calm. Avoid warlike metaphors and escalating language if possible. Tip: Reconsider who and what is really important in the given situation.
  7. Speed, speed, speed.
    Unfortunately I’ve seen it too often: While there’s a media storm raging  outside, the people in charge are still busy getting their statement ready on the inside. Where available, cut the approval madness and shorten it drastically. Establish a very small (!) circle of decision makers. Whenever possible, provide details and context. When in doubt, use the previously defined POV as a basis (see #5). Have faith in the expertise of your Comms professionals.
  8. There is nothing like too much communication.
    I’ve lived it countless times: After the first waves of internal communication, a certain fatigue sets in, particularly among the top management. Everything has been said now and everything should be clear, especially for employees. So far, so wrong. This is important: Keep the frequency of communication high, use different lengths, formats, protagonists and external credible sources (see #2). Focus on one channel, e.g. Intranet, Slack or MS Teams for internal comms, but do not leave out other channels entirely.
  9. Bring the CEO into the game.
    At 84 percent of listed companies in Germany, communication regarding Corona is a priority for top management. However, it is difficult to answer when exactly the time is right to bring the CEO into the game. Depending on the issues and the industry, the bar is set at different levels. At the latest, however, when people are injured or their health is in danger, the CEO has get into the game. This is certainly the case with  COVID-19. No ifs, ands or buts!
  10. Communicate what you expect.
    Even in exceptional situations it is perfectly legitimate to make your own expectations clear. After all, working from home is not vacation, school and shop closings do not mean holidays. Don’t forget this though: The how is as important as the what.
  11. Show empathy.
    Schools have closed, the shops are locked, social life comes to a standstill. The Corona crisis has a massive impact on many people, hits them hard and enforces major changes. It’s important to show empathy and understanding, to take people concerns seriously. By the way: Do not be afraid of colorful language or pathetic statements. Guiseppe Conti, the Italian Prime Minister, said in his TV address, „Today we don’t hug each other, only to hug each other all tighter tomorrow.“
  12. Don’t forget your costumer.
    Can I rebook my trip free of charge? Will my order still be delivered? How does the timing of a particular project change? Customers are deeply unsettled, having tons of questions. This is where communication must not only support but offer reliable solutions – fast and regularly (see #7 and #8). A one-off update or just referring to the company’s website won’t be enough. A mix of individual and general communication has proven its worth. For those who like to be ambitious: live blogs for customers could be an option. Standard, but not to be neglected: specials on the Corona virus on your website and in your FAQs, regular updates via email, usage of social media channels (see also #8) as well as an expanded hotline capacity.

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