Communicating in a Crisis: Dos and Don’ts

While many brands right now want to step up to the plate—and many already have, demonstrating admirable leadership—others are learning that communicating during a crisis can be a minefield that requires careful navigation.

With consumer patience wearing thin (and likely to become thinner as time goes on), communications need to strike the right balance and tone—i.e. positive but not trite; forward-thinking but not opportunistic; supportive and empathetic but not pandering.

First and foremost, the tone must be genuine: The message should serve your customers, not your business. What are their challenges right now? That should guide your messaging.

Second, watch the humour (and perhaps avoid it altogether). In a crisis situation, consumers are wary, and one person’s joke is another’s insult. Keep in mind, too, that timing is everything: What was acceptable before or even at the onset of the crisis can become increasingly offensive as the situation progresses. Consider the campaign for the launch of Corona’s hard seltzer: “Coming Ashore Soon”. Earlier in March, this tongue-in-cheek playfulness might have been tolerated with rolling eyes; now, through the rear-view mirror, it might be perceived as tone-deaf.

The fact is that in a post-COVID world, consumers will receive previously innocuous messages through a different lens: A crowded dance floor… two people sharing a milkshake… an airplane full of passengers. These all carry different connotations in our brave, new reality.

The third point: don’t fear-monger. Consumers are already frightened; do you want your brand associated with that fear? This is where the old adage “be part of the solution, not the problem” is especially appropriate. That’s not to recommend sugar-coating, but rather, to be seen as a leader who works to solve problems. Accentuate the positive.

Fourth, assume all internal communication will become external. Your employees are consumers too. They will scrutinize your corporate messaging, and share and comment on it if they feel your response to the crisis is lacking.

In general, it’s a good idea to remember that when communicating in a crisis, many traditional marketing and communication rules are turned on their end. Compassion trumps promotion. Clarity supercedes cleverness. Sensitivity and timing are more crucial than ever. Perhaps most important, there must be no room for misinterpretation. This is the time to think very critically about everything you say.