Don’t Let Communications in a Crisis Lead to Crisis Communication

These days, it often feels like we’re doing nothing but leapfrogging between crises. The coronavirus pandemic is not behind us, and yet the health and economic crisis that was front and center a month ago has been shifted, and all eyes are on the events in the wake of George Floyd’s death. In “Communications During a Crisis,” I discussed how brands were handling their messaging around the COVID-19 crisis after having my inbox flooded with “we’re all in this together” emails. Well, the flood has returned, but the topic is even more difficult to navigate this time around.

Talk is cheap

Communications during a crisis is not the same thing as crisis communications, but too often, doing the former incorrectly can lead to a need for the latter. With COVID-19, it was a question of whether “we’re all in this together” was really applicable and whether everything needed to be about COVID-19. The current situation is different and a bit more fraught, and has led to so many asking, “do I need to make a statement on Black Lives Matter?” And honestly, the answer is not clear, although one message is emerging – talk is cheap. Empty statements with nothing to back them up aren’t working anymore. The “Popular Information” newsletter recently called out some major corporations that made statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, yet had made political donations to members of Congress rated “F” by the NAACP on its “Legislative Report Card.” I haven’t seen any blowback, but it’s a good example of the need for meaningful actions versus empty words.

Less destructive examples of this include simply Tweeting or sending emails that say, “Black Lives Matter.” That’s great, but what does it mean? It feels like you’re just trying to get your name into my inbox or timeline without any substantive reason why. Many brands now have begun sending emails outlining their plans of action or saying what actions they’ve already taken. Those feel better – although it’s probably worth looking into whether their past actions live up to their current words, as the “Popular Information” article uncovered.

It also seems to make more sense to me when the statement is accompanied by a letter or note from the CEO or some other person. Not to be all “get off my lawn,” but years ago it was a rule that you didn’t anthropomorphize companies – companies can’t talk or think or act, and so you’d never write “Brand X said … .” Instead, we’d say, “Brand X’s leadership said” or “Joe Smith, president of Brand X said … .” That rule has been relaxed, but if a company is really committing itself to change, I want to know there’s a real person making that commitment.

No one knows the answer

A 2020 JOTW Communications Survey asked 300 PR professionals, “Should brands take a public stand on political issues?” There was nearly a three-way tie in answers: 29% said yes, 38% said no, and 33% said “Unsure.” It’s worth noting this survey was fielded primarily in February, so did not reflect any of the current crisis situations. But it makes the point that a third of PR professionals came into this unsure of whether to take a stand on political issues — and if you’re thinking that what we’re dealing with now isn’t a political issue, I’ll quote one respondent from the survey who noted, “Everything is now seen through a political filter.”

I’ve discussed the question of “what is the right action to take?” with some smart and brand-savvy people, and no one is completely sure. Do we have to say something? Can we say nothing? My thoughts, and probably everyone’s thoughts, have evolved over the last two weeks – I’m not sure you can say nothing, but I’m also not sure you should say anything if you don’t have something concrete, and I also think that what your message is and and the way you communicate it will vary depending on who your company is (there I go, anthropomorphizing companies) and who your audience is. That’s the communications professional in me. The human in me just says, “Please do something positive and substantive – and then talk about it if you want to.”

You are your brand

Ultimately, the way you communicate during a crisis will very much reflect upon your brand. And keep in mind that it’s not just company leadership – these days every person on social media is a brand representative (even if their profile says, “views are my own.”) A woman who went viral for calling the police on a birdwatcher in Central Park, telling them “an African-American man … is threatening me and my dog” was fired from her job (and had her dog taken away temporarily). Recently my alma mater, the University of Central Florida, sent out an email from their new president titled “Our Future is Inclusion.” The next day a psychology professor posted racist comments on Twitter – and the reaction and subsequent investigation made national media, putting the university in crisis communication mode – because the news stories don’t lead with the professor’s name, they lead with “UCF professor.”

You can’t control everyone and everything, but you can control your brand messaging, and you can control what you tell your employees about the rules around the messaging. Branding is a team sport, and it’s great to encourage employee-generated content. It’s obviously difficult to control what an employee posts on social media, but you can control your message to them, letting them know what is and isn’t acceptable.

I think we’re all in agreement that a) we’re sick of the word “unprecedented” and b) the word “unprecedented” is necessary to describe 2020. But of course, the word literally means that there is no precedent to follow as we navigate these waters. Common sense, best judgment, an open mind and a willingness to listen and shift course are key to doing so, and to preventing your communications during a crisis from turning into a need for crisis communications.

Don’t miss Disaster-Proofing Your Company: Protect Your Brand, Protect Your Future, June 10 at 10 am PT/1 pm ET. Register now.

amy weiss

is editorial director of BPO Media’s publications Workflow and The Imaging Channel, and senior analyst for BPO Research. As a professional writer and editor, she has specialized in the office technology industry for the last 20 years. Prior to that she worked in public relations and has a master's degree in communication arts.