Five lessons in crisis communication from Covid-19

Many of us may not have seen a global-scale, fast escalating, unpredictable crisis like the Covid-19, at close quarters. Living and working through this still-live situation, very close to the epicenter and having to communicate about various facets to different stakeholders helped reinforce many basics of communication.

These lessons may not be epiphanies but are definite note-downs for the PR black book.

Lesson #1: Timely communication: In this ever-connected, supersonic world where people have access to a plethora of information sources (genuine and fake), if you are one of the sources they believe in or you want them to believe in, be quick with your communication. Endless alignments and procrastination on what and how to write/say/show may make your correspondence seem well-rounded, but may end up serving no purpose at all, except becoming a belated tick mark on a long checklist. This will not only make you slowly slide down the list of reliable sources but can also become a sour point in the long term (build a reputation of being slow, unresponsive). Use technology to your advantage, move fast, cover larger bases. How Japan handled the crisis, especially connected to the cruise ship, Diamond Princess, is a good lesson in failed timely communication. 

Lesson #2: Simple and genuine communication: Clear, simple language and instructions go a long way in such situations. Not only do they convey the message well, they also give people a direction to follow. Not being able to answer all aspects of a situation is totally ok. Explain what you know well and for the rest, refer people to authentic, simple to understand sources. Avoid shoving ultra-technical or scientific references, however authentic they are. Remember, very few people have the time or inclination to receive complex content during such times. The WHO did a great job of very quickly amassing information on Covid-19, using simple language, frontloading all expected questions and deploying multi-media to convey genuine information.

Lesson #3: Communicating from a place of trust This one especially is not something that can be practiced or learnt overnight or during a situation. It must be earned and built over time. And it becomes fundamental to communicating during a crisis. If your stakeholders don’t trust you, no matter what or how you say, it will fall flat, if not have a contradictory effect. This aspect re-iterates how important it is to invest in consistent, open and transparent communication at all times, and not just during a crisis. The frenzy in Hongkong of hoarding of essentials, despite the Government’s constant communication assuring citizens of adequate supply, is a case in point for distrust.

Lesson #4: Don’t forget any stakeholders: In a situation like this, there are a multi-fold of stakeholders who need to be communicated with and updated regularly. It can be a daunting task, but it is in times like this that it is of utmost importance to be organised, delegate roles and responsibilities and have task lists, that guide you. Constituting task forces/incident management teams which group and re-group to discuss and carry out tasks work very well and ensure that no stakeholder groups are left out. Watching my own organisation handle this situation and being a part of the process, where we communicated across employees, customers, distributors, partners, media, etc was a huge learning and refresher course. 

Lesson #5: Adopt a calm tone, do not add to the panic: People have enough fake Whatsapp/WeChat/Facebook forwards to create untoward panic. As communicators we need to make all efforts to keep communications around such crisis fact based, simple and calm. Using complicated language, superlatives, putting in too much information, quoting too many sources and becoming very technical will only make people receiving it panic and get baffled. Adopt lesson #2 of clearly and simply communicating what you know. Your communication should leave people feeling reassured and reinforce their trust in you.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Bhavna Satyanarayan
Bhavna Satyanarayan, Communications Head, Care Chemicals, Asia Pacific, BASF

Bhavna is an experienced, outcome-driven, communications professional, who has enjoyed working on both the consultancy and corporate side in India and overseas. Through her career, she has amassed a breadth of experience in various facets including corporate reputation management, crisis management, internal, digital, change and leadership communications. She has worked with a host of blue-chip companies, to help build and run their campaigns, aligned to business goals.

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