Rewriting the Crisis Playbook in the Era of Coronavirus Communications

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The old crisis communications playbook is dead.

Many best practices are no longer sufficient to manage communicating during the pandemic. While transparency, empathy, and honesty remain hallmarks of crisis communications, COVID-19 has changed things. New benchmarks and considerations are needed.

War on Mental Health 

The mental health of employees and customers must come first. Fear of contracting the disease, losing one’s job and suffering financial ruin are just a few of the stressors severely impacting the public’s mental health.

As communicators, we must place mental health at the center of our efforts, or risk having the message we intend to convey fall on deaf ears or make matters worse for people who already are scared.

Public relations should engage psychologists and other trained mental health professionals. This will allow us to co-develop strategies that consider the impact of anxiety and stress on our audiences.

With these professionals’ guidance, communicators can improve listening skills and learn to look for signs of psychological duress. Perhaps then we can make a difference in providing comfort and direction during this unfathomable crisis.

If Cash is King, Information is Gold

Access to timely and accurate information is in high demand but can be hard to find. Many companies are drowning in data, but lack the tools or platforms to assess and act on it.

What’s more, the public is operating in a politically-charged, divisive media environment. Mixed messages and lack of clear direction from government, and disinformation stemming from social media have proven to be significant challenges.

Never before have companies needed a primary source of truth to make real-time decisions about how to respond to a crisis of this magnitude. This includes having direct access to infectious disease doctors, business-continuity experts, and economists to help track, assess and predict the evolution of COVID-19 and its impact.

Leaders Must Lead 

At the risk of sounding trite, the time for leadership is now. We need business leaders to manage through the crisis, the economic downturn, and the path to recovery.

Leadership is not reserved for the C-suite. It must also come from the trenches — managers, rank-and-file employees, and, communicators. These staffers influence how companies are engaging with employees and customers who are scared, sick and/or looking for someone or something to comfort them.

To lead during uncertain times, we need to stop making assumptions and start asking questions. This will allow us to understand how people are feeling and what they are thinking. Only then can we meet them where they are and help them.

There are no experts in communicating during the age of COVID-19. We are learning daily. Whatever life looks like on the other side, the role of crisis communications and the playbook we follow will have been rewritten.

Ted Birkhahn is co-founder/president of Hot Paper Lantern