A human approach to crisis management: how to communicate?

crisis communication covid-19

To fully understand the current crisis, we need to put it into context. This crisis is sudden; just 4 months after the virus emerged in China, 3 to 4 billion people are now in lockdown. We are facing an unprecedented situation. Almost every single country has been affected and forced to take action to fight the pandemic, making it difficult for countries to share their resources. This crisis is sudden and global, making it all the more challenging to overcome.

In this article, expert in business and crisis communication, Jean-Yves Rincé, analyses the Covid-19 crisis and shares his advice to help companies successfully communicate with their different audiences, in particular employees.

What is a crisis?

A crisis is a totally unexpected event that comes out of nowhere and plunges its surroundings into an extremely grave situation. It calls for urgent and highly coordinated action.

  • unpredictable: it is impossible to predict a crisis’ start date, but it is possible to anticipate and prevent
  • sudden: a crisis cannot be mitigated when it occurs, but we can react in an organised and calm
  • manner
  • urgent: a crisis calls for responsiveness, flexibility, and coordination

Crises are always awful but if the appropriate action is taken, they can be brought it to an end. Communication is key to achieving this.

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is not the same as crisis management. It refers to the various forms of communication employed to accompany a crisis as it develops and evolves and is addressed to the audiences impacted by this crisis, to guide them towards an end. Crisis communication does not
tackle the causes, but rather the effects, which are often psychological and sometimes physical.

Working on public opinion is a key part of this communication, i.e. reassuring people to avoid the risk of panic or doom-mongering, as seen in shops at the beginning of lockdown. It also consists in working on people’s behaviour, i.e. encouraging them to behave in a certain way, such as by
respecting lockdown, social distancing and barrier gestures.

Communicating during a crisis is complex because you need to address everyone, and quickly. Most businesses are currently faced with a particularly difficult situation as their two primary functions –
generating wealth and promoting social welfare – have been put on hold. The risk of losing their usefulness, legitimacy, and credibility is very real. It is therefore important they strengthen their roles and show that they convey positive values.

How should businesses communicate with their different audiences?

During these difficult times, companies have the opportunity and obligation to speak to their customers and employees, who may be struggling with a loss of bearings.

Understanding audience expectations

Employees are currently working from home, on reduced hours, unemployed, or exposed to the virus on a daily basis. In a totally unprecedented situation, 2 out of 3 workers are said to be working part
time or not at all.

They therefore make up a disoriented, and even anxious, audience for several reasons:

  • the physical link between companies and employees no longer exists, as a result of lockdown
  • daily employee work activities have changed, from their scope to processes. Managers must rely on
  • an objectives and results system, in order to monitor employee progress
  • the balance between work and family life can be difficult (shared living spaces, communication tools
  • and time)
  • management has drastically changed; employees may feel more pressure as a result of new
  • formalities that did not exist before
  • the vision employees have of the future is unclear, because they are focused on the present, a time of great uncertainty in terms of their health and professional future

As for customers, they are understanding but demanding. Understanding because the situation is difficult for everyone, so they can relate. But demanding because they expect businesses to offer solutions and compensation. They want to know what the conditions are for a return to “business as usual”.

There is a risk that companies could lose both of their audiences’ trust, possibly even leading to mistrust or suspicion. Their response to the crisis must therefore be very reassuring. It must build on what already exists and offer a solid perspective for the future.

Crisis communication: maintaining trust

Maintaining trust, at every level, in a company’s organisation, operations, management, and future, is an essential part of crisis communication. So, what 4 objectives should crisis communication work towards?

  • Objective n°1: maintaining business continuity and integrity

Opportunities for employees and management to share and exchange should be facilitated and encouraged. These “online” moments help employees turn their focus back to the company, even if they are not physically present.

It is also important to answer employee questions, by implementing tools to collect and answer their queries.

  • Objective n°2: facilitating work activities

Communication can be used to reassure, educate, and advise employees, so that they can complete their activities under the best possible conditions. The current situation is also an opportunity to look at how existing workstations can be made more ergonomic, and how processes can be improved.

  • Objective n°3: establishing and embodying remote management

How can you be present for your employees when they need you, through communication? By inventing “telemanagement”, making it possible for managers to organise one-on-one chats, lead group discussions or brainstorming sessions. The tools already exist, but the frequency of such
exchanges needs to be defined.

  • Objective n°4: defining and relaying a plan for the future

It is essential that companies define and communicate their plans for the future, after the crisis, whether for the collective future of the company or on an individual level. These plans should be authentic, realistic and presented with resolve. Do not make any promises you cannot keep, but also avoid being overly pessimistic, which would only serve to discourage your employees.

It is important to show that there is someone “at the helm”, with a real crisis exit strategy, and real perspective.

Crisis communication: being creative

The second key to successful crisis communication is creativity. Crisis communication cannot be based on yesterday’s issues or tools. You have to find other ways to communicate, to think out of the box. It is necessary to create new messages, to open yourself up to new horizons, based on existing foundations (the idea is not to destroy everything).

Overcoming a crisis means drawing on lessons from the past and inventing new things for the future. A company will find it easier to rally their employees if they convey a promise for change, for revival. Seize this period to establish a new kind of relationship with employees, and to ask them to contribute more. A crisis is an opportunity to build and exchange together on a number of issues.

The virus is a bit like a truth serum, administered to public authorities, companies and individuals, revealing their strengths and weaknesses. A crisis calls for renewed communication, because it is difficult to bring about change when things are going well, but possible in times of crisis.

If you want to know more about the benefits of a chatbot for crisis communication, click here.

crisis communication covid-19

Jean-Yves Rincé, expert in business and crisis communication.

35 years of experience in communication strategy consulting in-house, with consulting agencies or as an independent consultant. Founder of OPTIcommunication and lecturer at Sciences Po Lille and ENA.