Public relations gets a bad rap a lot of the time, especially when handling a crisis situation – the word spin is often used when a PR steps into the eye of the storm.
Having handled crisis communications for well over a decade now, from court cases to natural disasters, never could I have predicted such a seismic shift in how to handle a crisis as Covid-19.
The world has changed radically in this storm – and finally crisis comms has come round to my way of thinking – transparency is key. The key rules of crisis PR are planning – ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ as they say.
But when we were all sat in our offices at the start of 2020, not many of us were planning for something like this. Covid-19 has affected so many lives around the world, and the economic impact has been and will continue to be massive. As the pandemic has made its way around the world at pace, businesses were also faced with a tsunami of issues – and the public wanted answers.
When will you close to protect lives? When will you reopen? How are you protecting your staff? Why can’t I buy your goods? How are you self-distancing? Why is my delivery late?
Everyone’s a critic
Social media has made everyone a critic, and before facts are checked, minds are made up in seconds. None of that is really new, but here are my observations of how crisis communications have had to adapt and will likely change the way businesses have to communicate for good.
1- There is no agenda – other than the main agenda. There is only one thing that matters when communicating right now – saving lives. Nobody cares about any other agenda – so you shouldn’t have one.
2- The walls have come down. Many businesses that aren’t used to press attention feel an inbound enquiry is some kind of attack, or at best a trick – and social media criticism is viewed with contempt. I spend a lot of time explaining to business owners that tackling criticism head on requires absolute transparency and speed; we live in a world where nothing else is tolerated now. Be open, be timely and be yourself. If you have to hold your hands up and say you don’t know how you’ll cope but you are trying – that’s ok just now. We are all in the same boat of uncertainty. With an honest approach people understand that you are facing something you’ve never faced before, so if you are being deliberately opaque, evasive or are actually not doing the right thing you will be remembered for it long after this pandemic.
3- Facts matter. I’ve always diffused a situation by simply sticking to the facts. Under attack by an angry customer – what are the facts? A disaster is unfolding by the minute – what are the facts right now? The Number 10 Daily Briefing plays this card – they show the scientific facts first and foremost. Any announcements are often numbered – for example ‘here are the 5 steps to recovery’ or the ‘3 ways we will help businesses’ today. Facts and numbers matter – they should provide clarity and stop us straying into assumptions or confusion.
4- Front and centre. Every business leader should be media trained – that’s what they say. My belief is that every business should show leadership – you don’t need trained how to swerve questions or stop fiddling with your tie – you need empowered people ready to speak openly and honestly with the public. Front and centre – that’s where your leadership team should be in a crisis. Right up there speaking to their staff, their customers and the press. If that comes in the form of a written statement or video, so be it. As long as it comes from you, is direct and honest, and is communicated well before rumours start to breed.
5- Every negative needs a positive. As any crisis concludes I also ask – what are you doing to put things right in the future? At the moment sometimes it’s hard to see past the unfolding chaos to think about something positive from the situation, but many businesses are doing the right thing, right now. For example: Despite having to close all their hotels – they kept rooms open for NHS workers. Despite all shops closing and staff furloughed, they made deliveries in the community where they could. Despite not being able to manufacture – they’ve made PPE. This pandemic has brought communities closer together, and businesses large and small have put aside their normal lives and done some good. This shift in how we communicate shouldn’t always have to come out of a crisis, and one positive of the Covid-19 pandemic must surely be that in the future it won’t.