Communicating in the COVID-19 Crisis

Published: Apr 08th, 2020

Updated: Apr 05th, 2023

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste”. So said Barack Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – and Mr Emanuel has notably repeated the soundbite in recent weeks when discussing US lawmakers’ response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

But whilst the phrase might seem more applicable to the Machiavellian machinations of macro politics and economics, the sentiment is the right one for micro level responses to a crisis by organisations of any size. And it’s something that we’d advise all businesses, charities and public sector organisations currently dealing with the pandemic to take on board, especially when thinking about their communications.

That’s because a crisis makes companies concentrate on the communications that they should be prioritising. There are four audience sets in particular that we would advise organisations to focus on in order to sharpen up their comms in a crisis:

  1. Staff & Suppliers – Many B2C organisations will think about consumers first. But a crisis is precisely the moment to make sure that staff (as well as suppliers and contractors) have heard from an organisation’s leadership. The risk otherwise is that staff begin to worry, no longer focus on their roles and the whole organisation starts to lose momentum – thus exacerbating a crisis.
  2. Customers & Clients – It might sound obvious to talk to customers and clients in a crisis, but many organisations are hesitant about having to deliver difficult news to the people who ultimately pay them. They shouldn’t be. It’s better for customers and clients to have heard from you first, rather than them hearing about things second hand. Otherwise they might well ask what else are you trying to hide?
  3. Investors & Regulators – Very often organisations will have set piece moments at which they update investors and/or regulators. But even if you’ve spoken to these audiences recently, there is everything to be gained in even a short communication going to them letting them know that you are dealing with the situation. And even if your organisation is weathering a crisis well, investors and regulators may still be needed to look favourably upon you if things deteriorate – so make sure you’re on good terms with them now.
  4. Media – Sometimes organisations forget that the media is both an audience group in itself and a conduit to the above-mentioned audiences. They therefore need to be cultivated. Even with direct communications to the above groups, the media can shape perceptions of you, and a refusal to comment doesn’t make their interest in you go away – it only heightens it. They need to be engaged with and handled with care.

Much of what we described above can be rolled out quickly, even if you’re not currently doing it.

Sapience specialises in crisis communications and if you think you need support with yours, contact us.

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