Crisis Communications Should Focus on How Companies Help Constituents

By Sean Murphy and Bill Kanasky Jr., Ph.D.

In the rush to communicate with employees and customers about their responses to the novel coronavirus, many companies inadvertently led with their chins: “Your health and safety are our top priority.”

It’s good to be caring and to assure others, but at issue is the potential for lawsuits where attorneys may seek to take a company’s broad “health and safety” claims and turn them into liability and damages. Especially in a crisis, boards and management teams need to think about the future as they communicate about the novel coronavirus — and shift course if they’ve already started down the “health and safety” path.

Further, is this message really what customers need to hear most?

For example, in a novel coronavirus quarantine, don’t customers really need to know what the bank is doing to give them access to their money? Similarly, why wouldn’t a cell phone provider focus their messaging on what they’re doing to bolster service as demand peaks along with the crisis?

It’s the difference between implying you’re taking responsibility for the health and safety of your key constituents versus providing an update about what your company is doing in response to the novel coronavirus crisis. That’s why it’s important to have a multi-discipline crisis team evaluate and shape what you say, including top management, the heads of relevant business units, legal and communications.

Some health experts see the novel coronavirus crisis extending at least into the summer, and companies will need to respond to an evolving situation. Here are three steps for directors as they work with their management teams:

  1. Focus on credible, useful information. Start your communications about the crisis with something like, “We’re reaching out to update you on what we’re doing in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.” The information that follows should be about how your organization is adapting to the crisis, and how those changes will affect customers, employees and others. Be straightforward, so people can determine what it means to them.
  2. Temper emotion. The novel coronavirus crisis is a once-in-a-century event and company leaders may struggle to find their voice when communicating about it. Some are preoccupied with the future viability of their businesses. Others are asking employees to make extraordinary sacrifices — either to work directly with the public (e.g., health care providers, grocery store employees) or take pay cuts or furloughs. Statements like “stay calm” often cause alarm. Obfuscating the facts with platitudes just makes people angry. Citing your religious or political beliefs can be divisive. It’s emotionally taxing, but leaders are at their best when they reassure others through the clarity of their response.
  3. Be visible. Urge management teams to actively communicate during this crisis through emails, texts, video updates and messaging apps like Slack and Google Hangouts. It’s critical to level with people and let them know where things really stand. It’s also important to talk about the longer-term future, so they know the company is planning ahead.

The irony of a crisis is companies that handle them effectively tend to burnish their reputations because of the leadership they’ve demonstrated. More than ever, it’s time to lead.

Sean Murphy co-leads the crisis and litigation communications practice for Courtroom Sciences, Inc. Bill Kanasky Jr., PhD, is the firm’s senior vice president of Litigation Psychology.

Published date: April 6, 2020