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Posted on 4/29/2020

How to communicate with employees, customers and the media during a crisis

Mike Szudarek

With COVID-19 uprooting life for businesses and employees worldwide, and no determined end date, there’s a new normal for everyone. We are all in a major crisis that affects how we work, where we work, and how we communicate.

Here are some key tips for businesses on managing communication with their employees, stakeholders and customers, and the media in this unique time. These tips can also be considered best practices for future crises. 

Internal communications

Most important in any crisis is your staff’s health and safety. Make sure everyone is safe and let them know you are there to help them. Get feedback and respond appropriately. The last thing you need is a sense that leadership is not supportive of employees. Be open and honest as the crisis develops to maintain trust.

Stay in touch with employees regularly. Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams — now the standard means of communication with external customers and clients — can also be used internally, and calls and texts will be more frequent for urgent matters. An email update to employees daily amid the crisis shows you care and can help ease their minds.

Communication is always the key. Don’t be silent. Be honest and stay in touch with your team.

Stakeholder, customer communication 

Regarding your customers, clients, investors, partners and other stakeholders, many of the same best practices apply. Communication is key. You have to let everyone know you are still there for them, no matter what is going on.

Stakeholders are each affected by a crisis in their own way. Talk through what each side is going through and how you can help each other survive and come out stronger. The goal is always to preserve a relationship, even if it needs to be adjusted for the short term.

For customers — the lifeblood of any organization — a business must maintain that relationship and make customers want to keep coming to you. In a situation like COVID-19, the goal is to keep them engaged with your brand, even if they can’t come into your store right now. Let them know how you can help them; Be a good corporate citizen and the public will remember. Social media and your website are both good ways to stay in touch and keep the updates coming.

In general, regarding a crisis that tests customer and partner loyalty, own up to any mistakes made by your company, and detail exactly what you are doing to earn their trust back. Before people raise concerns about what you are NOT doing, tell them exactly how you are addressing the issue and set the narrative in your favor. 
Keep in mind that your internal crisis response team, public relations agency, and legal counsel should align on the wording used in your narrative. And front-line staff who will interact with customers on the phone or in person will need to know this language too.

Media communications

The world of media right now is very different from normal, with nearly nonstop COVID-19 coverage.

Evaluate what’s important to promote now, and what can wait. Anything not critical should be left for later, and if the launch date can’t change, the promotion timeframe should still be pushed back. You don’t want to be seen as profiting off of an unfortunate situation like this.
Also, reporters are focused fully on the crisis at hand, and your product launch will likely be ignored or fade into the background, at best.

Instead, in times of crisis, consider promoting to media any positive efforts you are making to support others. Also keep in mind unique circumstances caused by any given crisis. Right now, most TV news stations are doing all interviews remotely, not live in-studio. Be prepared to use technology to communicate with the media in ways you normally would not.

If a crisis arises that’s specific to your business, be prepared to move swiftly via all communication channels, from news media to social media and your website. Time is of the essence, and responsiveness lets you control the narrative and gives you an opportunity to tell your side of the story and correct any inaccuracies.

Conclusion

For any brand or company, a strong, well-rounded crisis communications plan is critical so you can shift into gear and best protect yourself when a crisis arrives — whether it’s at your business alone, industrywide, or even bigger like the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s all about excellent internal communications, proper stakeholder and customer communications, and having a realistic media strategy considering the circumstances that tells the right story in the right way.

Proper communication in times of crisis will go a long way towards keeping your business successful in the long run, no matter how bad things may be at the moment.

About the Author

Mike Szudarek | Marx Layne & Company

Mike Szudarek leads Marx Layne & Company’s automotive practice and has more than two decades of experience counseling clients in the automotive and technology sectors. He previously served with a Fortune 500 company and has been on both the corporate and agency side of the communications business, understanding first-hand the many issues and challenges businesses face. He has experience working with OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, and aftermarket industries, in addition to a specialization in mobility and autonomous driving. Szudarek holds memberships with the Automotive Press Association and the Public Relations Society of America. Marx Layne & Company has over three decades of experience guiding businesses large and small through crises.

 
 

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