The rapid onset of the COVID-19 crisis has been astonishing, causing major disturbances in daily life within days of most Americans learning about the threat. These disturbances have only been amplified by the other virus, misinformation, which spreads at the speed of thumbs on social media.
Governments, businesses and individuals have been charting a new course to respond to this pandemic with varying degrees of success, and keeping stakeholders — customers, employees, industry partners and others — informed and ahead of false or misleading information has been a challenging effort.
No matter your organization’s size, purpose or audience, the following nine practices will give you the best chance of succeeding in the face of COVID-19 with calm, clear communications that convey key information with humanity:
1. Have a purpose.
Every communication, in every situation, should have a goal. If you can’t identify why you are sending out an update, don’t send one. Keep the trust of the people you are communicating with by sending information that they need to know.
2. Have a plan.
Crises do not wait for teams to mobilize. Crisis plans build a framework that takes the guesswork out of any response, allowing leaders to make thoughtful decisions when they are not under duress. Details like who is involved in a crisis response, where information is kept and how information is released can save a team anywhere from hours to days — all of which can be precious during an emergency.
3. Be direct, honest & never speculate.
Uncertainty breeds fear and concern. Use clear, concise sentences that directly express the ideas you want to communicate. Avoid figurative language that can be easily misinterpreted. Finally, being unaware is a much better alternative to being wrong. If you aren’t 100% on any piece of information, don’t guess or comment.
4. Establish a routine.
A regular cadence of communication is invaluable during difficult times. Information dispersed reliably on a known schedule creates assurance and goodwill within your audiences. When speaking, use the flagging technique: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you told them.
5. Have a backup.
In situations where new information could come at any time — or team members could develop illness — it is imperative to make sure several people can act as a spokesperson or a conduit to your organization. This continuity planning can prevent silence during critical communication points.
6. Be credible.
Every statement is suspect in an environment where misinformation runs rampant. State your sources. Be transparent in how you came to decisions. Showing your work means trust, which is an invaluable commodity during a crisis.
7. Be human.
Cold calculus and sober evaluations may be best for making business decisions, but they are detrimental to communicating those decisions. Be empathetic to the worries, needs and outlook of those you are addressing. Don’t use jargon. Be clear about the impact of any actions you take. Above all, be kind.
8. Lead from the center.
The closest people to your organization — usually partners and employees — should be informed first and empowered to help spread correct information as your communication heads farther out to external stakeholders. You’ll cover more ground and increase the credibility of your messages with this model.
9. Be everywhere.
Always consider how your message is being distributed. Use all of your channels — including your website, social pages, email lists, phone messages and even signage at brick-and-mortar locations. People consume information in different ways; be somewhere acc for everyone.