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From COVID-19 and Beyond: 6 Steps to Better Managing Strategic Crisis Communications

February 18, 2021

It goes without saying that planning and managing your strategic communications is a year-round priority. When your organization finds itself in a crisis, however, it becomes the top priority. Not only do you have a slim margin for error, but the urge to panic can become a bit overwhelming. And especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be nice to know that there are things you can do to better manage a crisis to prevent things from slipping a little further into chaos.

Luckily, access to the proper data, in-depth analysis, and well-informed communications decisions can keep anxiety—and, more importantly, data bias—at bay while you work your way through any crisis, even if it’s one related to COVID-19.

We recently asked communications professionals around the world what others can do to better understand and connect with audiences in the midst of a crisis. We then distilled their advice down into this handy six-step roadmap.

Step 1: Focus on your strategy

Start by developing your overall crisis communications strategy. To help you do so, the International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) suggests the acronym “Play”:

  • Determine the problem you’re trying to solve
  • Look at each audience uniquely
  • Ask how you will earn their attention
  • Understand what success (Yes!) will look like

By taking the time to step back and focus on your overall objectives you hope to accomplish with your crisis communications efforts, the better you can think through the best ways to engage with each target audience.

Step 2: Understand each audience’s perspective

Identify and understand all stakeholders you’ll need to communicate with—anyone from internal stakeholders (managers, employees, etc.) to external ones (customers, investors, journalists, analysts, etc.). This involves going beyond simply knowing who your audiences are; once they’re identified, you should consider the crisis from each audience’s unique perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how this crisis is playing out for them. Look at their concerns. Imagine how possible resolutions might impact them, for better or worse. Understanding your audiences’ perspectives will only make your communications that much stronger.

Also, be sure to engage the key executives in your company’s C-suite at the very outset of the planning process. They’re one of your audiences as well, so it’s important to understand the crisis from their perspective just as with any other group. Talk to them to make sure that your objectives are aligned with their expectations.

Step 3: Determine data that matters

Decide what to measure in your strategic communications and how to measure those variables. At the onset of a crisis, your team should confer with your internal stakeholders to assess the scope of the problem and to settle on a handful of key data points that you want to put on your radar. Monitor those data points daily throughout the crisis, so you can keep tabs and stay up to date on how things are going.

As far as specific data points that you’ll find helpful, that will depend largely upon your organizational objectives, along with the nature of the crisis you find yourself dealing with. However, the communications professionals we interviewed for this roadmap listed several of the common data points that are most often relied upon in crisis situation, and they typically fall into the following categories: media coverage, social listening, competitive analysis, and brand health. Our very own Nexis Newsdesk™ offers pre-built templates for these exact types of data.

Step 4: Safeguard against bias

Don’t let bias creep into your measurements. Make sure to participate in active listening as the crisis unfolds. This can make a crisis far less damaging (and painful) by putting you and your team in a position to be more agile in your tactical responses to changing circumstances.

Look at random samples, and don’t just limit yourself to analyzing social conversations that are convenient or easier to stomach. You have to be willing to tolerate a certain level of unfair criticism and even outlandish remarks to find valid sentiments. The pay off in doing so is that you’ll make smarter, better-informed decisions by separating your pre-conceived notions from factual, objective feedback from your audiences.

Step 5: Apply strategy and monitoring

Now it’s time to reconnect all the data you have collected and combine it together with what you know and understand about your target audiences and your guiding strategic objectives. But be careful here: Several of the professionals we spoke to warned that the biggest failures in crisis communications are usually the result of an organization prioritizing its own desired outcome against the best interests of their customers or other external stakeholders. So, be honest with what the data, your audience insights, and objectives are telling you. Otherwise, you risk further alienating the audiences you need to serve the most.

Use data points collected in step 3 to support your strategic recommendations. The hard work you’ve put in along the way will help secure buy-in from internal stakeholders regarding your recommended course of action.

Step 6: Develop unified messaging

In times of crisis, speed and resolve and two of your most invaluable tools as a communicator. Communicate quickly, with clear messaging, and do so confidently on a united front. Delayed response times and conflicting, wavering messages will only make things worse. Confer with other areas of the organization beforehand to see if special compensation or other offers can be provided to people impacted by the crisis. Think about what is reasonable and what you would consider an acceptable resolution if you were a person impacted by the crisis. After that, align on one unified message with customized targeted communications to key audiences.

Finally, put your strategy into motion. And once things are underway, track your audiences’ reactions, and then leverage feedback from relevant media and social sources to inform messaging revisions and communications decisions.

Managing strategic communications in a crisis is never an ideal situation to find yourself. But if you follow these 6 steps, you can adjust and respond with the kind of agility the situation warrants—and hopefully bring the crisis to a satisfactory close sooner rather than later. To lend a little more help along the way, we’ve also put together this concise checklist of action items to follow should you find yourself managing strategic communications in a crisis.