An expert’s guide to planning for crisis communications once an event has occurred.

Are you one of the many business owners who wasn’t worried about a crisis communications strategy until COVID-19 came knocking? If so, don’t worry, many business owners think they’re too small, specialized, or “unknown” to need a crisis communications strategy. Until they do…

Like many business owners, I’ve been glued to the news over the past week. It seems like every day, hour even, brings some new update that can make managing this crisis, and communicating to your customers and employees, nearly impossible.

There is also a lot of advice out there. I have managed countless crisis communications situations and I’m here to tell you that no matter how new and different, overwhelming, or unexpected the event might be – the same principles and methodologies always apply.

Regardless of the size of your business or the types of products or services you offer, if you haven’t had to communicate to your customers about COVID-19 yet, you will. Here are a few of my tried and true strategies to help you plan effectively.

Stay calm. You’ve already heard this, I’m sure. But how calm are you really? Are your kids home from school and driving you crazy? Are you worried about an upcoming trip you have planned? Your parents in another state? Did you see half your service bookings disappear in the last week? Staying calm means more than keeping yourself from running around like Chicken Little. Make sure that you take a few moments for yourself first thing in the morning, and at intervals throughout the day. Take some deep breaths, stay hydrated and make sure you’re eating healthy foods that keep you feeling your best.

More than once I have found myself stuck in a situation room out of water, hours past lunch time, hungry and exhausted. This is not how you want to be feeling for optimal mental performance. You need to be present and focused.

Be sure to keep a few healthy snacks and a water bottle near your workstation. This advice might seem overly simplistic, but I promise you, you’ll thank me if you find yourself in crisis communications response mode.

Educate yourself. Gather as much information as possible and please make sure the information you’re using to make your decisions and communicate with others is accurate. I recommend visiting the CDC website directly to get the latest, and most reliable information.

When you share information, either informally in conversations or in written communications with customers and employees, be sure to site your source. Letting everyone know where your information came from builds trust with others and empowers them to communicate effectively as well.

Don’t forget to double check those posts on social media that you might be inclined to like or share. It’s easy to make information look reliable, that doesn’t mean that it is the best information out there. We are all responsible for our own due diligence. Especially as business owners.

Map your scenarios. If you haven’t already done so, you need to take the time now to write out each possible scenario you could face in your business while we weather the COVID-19 storm. It’s not enough to think about it or chat about it, you need to have a full crisis event plan. If you have employees, make sure they are all familiar with the plan and the scenarios.

Here are a few questions to help you get started:

What happens if I get sick? What if I’m critically sick? Does the business run without me? Should I do any training or share any information now with employees, friends, or family members in case I’m critically ill and need help?

What happens if an employee is diagnosed? Do they interact with clients?

What authorities do I need to contact to notify them if someone is sick? (Bonus tip – find this contact information now and include it in your plan.)

How am I supporting my employees during this time? Do they have what they need to effectively work from home? What am I doing to address any morale issues that will arise?

How am I supporting my customers? Can I offer any new or additional product or service to make their lives easier during this difficult time?

How can I build customer loyalty now to help my business in the long term?

Am I properly insured? Do I have the right professionals on-board to help me with financial, legal, or HR complexities that could arise this year?

Who are my key stakeholders? Have you outlined everyone you might need to communicate with based on the events above? Be sure to do that now. Think beyond customers and employees and make sure you have updated contact information for anyone who might be affected or whose help you might need to call on when time is of the essence.

Write your messages. For every scenario you outline, take the time now to write final messages for all of your key stakeholders. You might need to write different messages for different audiences. Keep a vault of these critical messages and update them as needed. If you need expert advice or approvals from other sources, secure those now. If you need imagery or templates for your communications, gather those as well now. You’re essentially preparing for your biggest marketing campaign yet, although in this case your best case is that you never have to use the materials you’ve prepared.

Update your email lists and other channels. Make sure you have a complete email list for all key stakeholder groups. If you use phone or text communication, make sure those lists are updated as well. Do you need a phone tree for your staff or providers? Refresh or create any communication materials, templates, and databases now. You won’t have the time to do it in the middle of an event.

Practice delivering your message. It doesn’t matter if you only need to speak with a few clients or address a large public audience, I want you to practice delivering your message. These are stressful times for all of us, nothing creates a panic faster than an audience who loses confidence in you.

No one knows what will happen next with this pandemic. But I do know one thing with certainty. Even if this crisis were to disappear tomorrow you will face some other crisis over the lifetime of your business. Now is the time for decisive preparation.

If you’re looking for expert crisis communications or event response advice, I’ve got you covered. Contact me for a free consultation.

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