By Karina Margit Erdelyi

CRISIS COMMUNICATION IS BRAND COMMUNICATION IN THE AGE OF COVID-19

We are living through a landscape-scale crisis – calling all leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic has no obvious parallel: it has created considerable uncertainty, ratcheted up stress and anxiety, and we are looking to make sense out of the morass of information and conflicting narratives—giving rise to an increased desire for guidance and transparency. A leader’s words and actions can have an outsize impact.

People are increasingly looking at companies to be moral leaders that lead with transparency and truth—and reflect their values. This sentiment has been amplified by the pandemic, as seen in the 2020 Edelman Brand Trust Barometer Report from communications and PR firm Edelman, which surveyed 12,000 people across ten countries (United States, United Kingdom, South Korea, South Africa, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada, Brazil). This research “showed that “my employer” was the most trusted institution by 18 points over business in general and NGO’s, by 27 points over government and media.” For the majority of those surveyed, employer communications are the most credible source of information about COVID-19.

As above so below; as within so without

Brands will be judged for a long time based on how they behave during this time—it’s easy to see how a tone-deaf ad might spell disaster for a brand. But equally important is how companies behave with their employees. If they react in superficial ways, they likely do so at their own peril. Soft actions today can have hard business implications later. Stories are emerging of professionals that feel let down or betrayed by their companies. Fran Skinner, CFA, CPA, and partner at AUM Partners, a talent assessment and leadership development training firm, shared this in Barron’s:

Recently, I was speaking to a very talented finance professional who was asked by her manager to do something for a client that she felt exposed her personal health to unnecessary risk. When I asked her how she felt about that, she said, “I’m going to remember this with my feet when this is all over.” She’s already scanning job postings and updating her resume.

Companies are walking a delicate tightrope—balancing hard realities with the need to protect the health of their employees and brand reputation. How those tough decisions are communicated matters more than you might think. Credibility, honesty, transparency are the building blocks of trust. With no clear playbook to act as a guide through this frenzied and unparalleled time, it’s a good time to pause and think. What you do and say now will have ramifications that will powerfully reverberate.   

The good news? How you communicate is within your control.

Do it effectively—and your words and actions can help restore faith, calm frazzled nerves, and help your organization envision a way forward. Now is the time to define long-term goals, listen to stakeholders, and open space for meaningful dialogues. Be proactive and you will build organizational resilience through this extended period of uncertainty. Once the market settles into the next normal, candidates and employees will remember how this was managed.

Open communication can help turn a crisis into a catalyst for beneficial change. Here are five things that expert crisis communicators do well:

1. Communicate. Clearly. Simply. Often.

As we crawl out of this crisis, be mindful of how you are communicating with your employees and candidates. Framing and frequency of communication matter—people tend to pay more attention to positively framed information. Think about framing instructions as “do’s” in the guise of best practices and benefits rather than as “don’ts.” It’s a more effective strategy. Also, repetition is key. Messages need to be repeated and reinforced, particularly as they relate to health.

2. Focus on facts.

Be clear about what is known and unknown—don’t sugarcoat the facts; don’t minimize or speculate. The truth is that “the facts” likely include bad news about business and organizational changes that will be painful for people. Avoidance is not a good look. Neither is unbridled optimism. Steer a clear course. When you are not able to communicate with certainty, for example, about when social distancing restrictions might be lifted, avoid giving precise estimates: i.e., “There’s a 70% chance we will be back to normal by August.” Instead, be clear that you are sharing an opinion, acknowledge uncertainty, and disclose sources that helped form that view and what criteria will be used to formulate a plan of action: i.e., “It’s my hope that things will be back to normal in August based on the decline in the infection rate, but that is far from certain. We will be heeding government guidelines to make the right decisions for our business.”

3. Cultivate resilience.

Treat your employees the way you treat your superstar client. When projects come back—you will need dedicated staff that can hit the ground running. To build momentum for the future, business leaders will need to cultivate resilience. But how? By celebrating the positive and acknowledging loss. Sharing positive stories can tap into sources of hope and optimism—creating uplifting moments that are essential building blocks for envisioning a new way forward. And by acknowledging loss, you convey empathy and awareness—denying or hiding from loss can actually make people more likely to focus on the negative.

Brian Chesky, the CEO of AirBnB, wrote a much-praised letter to recently laid-off AirBnB employees, a great example of how acknowledging challenge and celebrating positivity can build resilience. Yes—he had to let 25% of his company go—but in a way that was mindful, considered, and built loyalty even among those departing the organization.

4. Choose meaning over magnetism, transparency over opacity.

How you treat your employees and job candidates in the coming weeks and months will be remembered. Leaders who fail to build trust quickly during this crisis will lose the confidence of their workers. When people believe that they have been misled or that risks are being downplayed—faith will not just erode, it will be lost. To build trust, be transparent. Give employees a behind-the-scenes view of the various options you are considering—when people feel involved, they are more likely to feel like their concerns matter and be invested in the outcome. Involve the various stakeholders in decision making and ask for input—and actively listen.

While this may be counter-intuitive to some—vulnerability is also strength, particularly in a crisis. Humanize difficult decisions by sharing your own feelings and acknowledging the effects that this turmoil is having on you personally. Studies show that demonstrating vulnerability, like grief over shared losses, can also help build trust and resilience.

5. Be the compass in the storm.

As people adapt to the next normal, effective leaders will want to help people make sense of events. Distilling meaning is fundamental to recovering from crisis and trauma. For many of us, our workplace is a profound source of identity and meaning, which is why helping employees tap into a deeper sense of purpose can help chart the way forward. Explore ways to connect this time of crisis to something bigger. Perhaps this dovetails with goals for organizational transformation or pivoting to serve clients in new ways. As you navigate your business’s future, remember this simple maxim: open communication can help transform a crisis into a catalyst for beneficial change.