[Editor’s Note: Columnist Mark Weiner will return next month.]
When a crisis hits, the volume of news can be overwhelming. Enter coronavirus. The firehose of content is on full blast, streaming directly at executives from every angle: peers, investors, board members and more.
If you have been tasked with distilling this information for leadership, the project can seem daunting. While most communications departments are experts at putting information into the world, many may be struggling now to invert the process. The quality of news varies considerably, so leadership teams need to know they can trust your communication as the gold standard.
The most critical step in managing the information flow up to leadership happens before the crisis hits. Organizations need to build infrastructure for executive crisis communication in advance. As many are learning now, if you wait until the volume of information is as gargantuan as coronavirus news, you’ll scramble to react.
It’s crucial to establish your crisis communication processes in advance.
To be prepared for any crisis, develop standard operating procedures (SOP) and revisit them quarterly or at least semi-annually.
•The POC: Determine in advance who runs point on monitoring the media on a day-to-day basis. Does the person in charge (POC) change in a crisis, or can you mobilize additional resources? Does the POC change based on the type of crisis?
You don’t want to find out during a chat at the (virtual) water cooler that you have a manager with a background in public health who isn’t being utilized. Know where you have expertise and use that to your advantage.
If a financial crisis is on the horizon, know who on your team has the foundation to understand jargon and broader implications. Identify the knowledge gaps on your team and fill them ahead of time.
•Frequency: What time do your executives start their day? Do they span multiple time zones? A 7am ET update may suffice for a US-based firm, but if you have executives in London, how are they being serviced? Determine the frequency with which you produce an update. Is it daily? Twice daily?
No matter what, avoid falling into the trap of forwarding news as it arrives. Your C-suite likely does not have time to read full-text articles on an ad-hoc basis. Identify in your SOPs when you’ll send updates and stick to that schedule, so your leadership knows when to expect them.
•Distribution:How widely will your updates be distributed? Remember, your job is not to inform your entire company about every piece of information related to the crisis. One solution might be to distribute to VPs and above, and allow them to pass on to their teams as needed. Save this distribution list as a listserv or group email contact. Reply-all won’t cut it.
•Format:How tech-savvy is your leadership team? Will it expect a printed copy of your updates on their desks, or do team members prefer something mobile-friendly? Are they voracious readers, or do they want tight bullet points? You’ll want to learn their preferences beforehand. As with frequency, these are decisions that require buy-in from your leadership.
When the Crisis Hits
• Refine the Source List:You should already know whether your executives are Wall Street Journal or New York Times junkies. Look for additional sources that consider the news through your industry lens.
You already know the list of trade journals in your space, but keep in mind that those sources may be slower to report on breaking news. Which are the most up-to-date, reliable, and evidence-based?
For example, if you have a warehouse in coronavirus-stricken Italy, consider looking at top Italian news directly or monitoring trusted sources for international news. Be careful with sources that have political leanings.
If you have a Google News alert set up for coronavirus, you might be suffering from information overload. Instead, use your source list as a tool to shrink down the volume of coverage.
•Data, Data, Data:As much as possible, use data. Save your CEO time by pulling data points out of articles and displaying them prominently.
An article with a lot of data may have only one data point that’s relevant to your organization. It is up to you to sift through the noise to put that figure in front of your leaders.
Bear in mind that statistics often get manipulated. The source of the data is just as important as the data itself, so be sure to use citations clearly. For coronavirus updates, prioritize data from the CDC, Johns Hopkins, NIH, and other trusted institutions in the infectious disease space.
•Eliminate Bias: Remember the bit about a good POC? Someone with experience in the field will be better equipped to sort through fact from fiction, but even they may have biases. Put a second or third pair of eyes on everything.
If adding internal perspective, clearly label it as such. When a journalist paints a negative picture, attribute the sentiment to the journalist, not to the situation.
There’s a fine line between presenting the reality of media coverage and shielding your executives from it. If the news is bad, you can’t pretend it’s good. You might be inclined to say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’ But that’s not a winning strategy.
Instead, find an approach that won’t inflame your leaders, but also don’t leave them in the dark.
If you’re not already briefing your leaders regularly on the coronavirus, it’s time to rethink how you communicate with them. Following these steps will provide value for your executives and remind them of the many ways the communications department is a vital member of the crisis team.
If the above seems overwhelming, consider outsourcing the work this time around. And, as soon as the pandemic settles down, get cracking on those SOPs so you’re ready for a wave that might come or whatever occurs next.
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