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Explain, don’t contain: the new crisis communications norm

Guest Author

October 6, 2020  •  6 min read

The importance of robust crisis management is nothing new: businesses have always faced unexpected issues and how well they adapt has determined their ongoing success. COVID-19 hasn’t changed that. Now more than ever, fast and decisive action is vital to protect brand reputations and customer relationships. But there are many aspects of this particular crisis that call for a different tack, especially for customer communications. 

Customers have adjusted their personal priorities; shifting from the higher self-actualisation needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy to more fundamental physiological requirements, such as safety, belonging, and trust. At the same time, already growing expectations of business transparency and responsibility are now even higher. According to a special Edelman Trust Barometer report, 77% of global respondents want brands to only talk about their offerings in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and its impact, while 71% say they will permanently lose trust in those who are seen as putting profits over people. 

As a result, conventional crisis coordination is not the right solution. Traditionally, the go-to method for tackling challenging situations has focused on damage limitation; striving to contain negative issues by keeping awareness minimal. But in an era of heightened customer demands and sharp online scrutiny, this won’t make the grade. 

In short, businesses need to be open and honest. Instead of taking the typical crisis mitigation route, they must embrace a new crisis management norm that’s built on clear, consistent, and authentic communication. 

Recalibrate around core values 

Today’s customers are highly skilled in not only quickly penetrating communications designed to detract from underlying issues, but also detect when company messages aren’t based on real views and values. It therefore follows that before businesses can start to formulate an effective crisis handling approach, they must take a closer look at their principles. 

As recently noted by Kerrie Finch, founding partner and CEO at Futurefactor, COVID-19 offers the ideal opportunity for recalibration, creating huge potential for companies to reassess and discover their core drivers. In particular, efforts need to centre on identifying the genuine and unique values that form the foundation for meaningful communications, rather than simply aiming to tap the current mood.

By reconfiguring their principles, firms can place themselves in a better position to pivot with purpose on multiple levels. From a crisis plan, they’ll be able to take meaningful action that aligns with their values and audience priorities. And when it comes to communications, better definition of internal beliefs will help them fuel trust and loyalty by telling their brand story more transparently and authentically.

Engaging customers on their terms 

With an increased ability to spot signs of inauthenticity has come greater determination to call companies out when messaging doesn’t ring true. And amid ever-increasing social media uptake — with more than half the world using social channels — customers now have a larger platform for broadcasting their views. For companies, this makes it even more critical to consider crisis communications from every angle; not just evaluating the values behind them, but also taking care to ensure chosen messages and mediums speak to consumers in the right, genuine way.

Customers hungry for honesty don’t want generic corporate statements or high-production advertising — according to Arjun Sarwal, regional business for TikTok South East Asia, a high proportion are even losing interest in “shiny marketing pushes” and opting to engage with less polished and “raw” messages instead. This alteration in communication preferences makes a compelling case for dialling up earned media and PR. Organisations must look beyond purely promotional campaigns if they want to fuel individual resonance and trust.

For example, this might include expanding the use of earned media and PR tactics that put a heavy emphasis on reinforcing customer bonds and sharing stories organically. Whether it’s social media posts, webinar discussions or bylined articles published in trade magazines, combining PR and earned media offers multiple benefits: giving customers credible content they can explore on their own terms and companies the ability to take a thought-leadership position and steer industry innovation. Leaning in, of course, on integral business values. 

Implementing flexible playbooks 

Prominent among the lessons taken from 2020 will be the value of the playbook: an all-encompassing instruction manual for navigating crises. Understandably, attention so far has mostly revolved around using playbooks to retain control, but their applications stretch much further. 

Harnessed to their full potential, playbooks provide a comprehensive guidebook for staying on track in developing crisis situations, making it easier for companies to determine how their communications can be consistently aligned with business values, best practices, and evolving company needs. 

Right now, for example, that might entail outlining transparent messaging that can be applied across an organisation to feed the need for openness and clarity, while using social listening to monitor for changes to customer sentiment and adapt communications accordingly. 

In the long-term, such versatile implementation will help companies ensure they can fine-tune communications as crises evolve. By persistently collecting past learnings and real-time insight into what customers are saying across media channels, companies can create a constantly refreshing knowledge pool that enables them to continually update their strategies and ensure messages are attuned to what their customers want, without losing authenticity. 

Tempting as it may be to stick with tried and tested methods of crisis management, the previous standard of containment no longer applies. Customers are calling for companies to not only lead with their values, but also living by those principles. By recalibrating around core ethics, leaning into earned media and embracing adaptable playbooks, organisations can use honest and agile narratives to build stronger businesses ready for the recovery.

—Victoria Usher featured as a panelist in Sprinklr’s recent virtual event: ‘Stop Collaborate and Listen: Crisis Management isn’t what it used to be.’ To learn more about Victoria’s recommendation for crisis management and public relations, please register to watch this virtual event.

A former data analyst and agency CMO, Victoria is the founder of GingerMay, a leading independent technology B2B PR firm working with businesses looking to improve their reputation and commercial performance by clearly articulating their brilliance.

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