Insights into Crisis Communications Post-pandemic
August 12, 2022
By Kelly Bantle, Principal at Allegiant Strategies NW and HCNW President
Thrust into an unprecedented pandemic of global scale in our modern time, crisis became a day-in and day-out reality dragging on for years. Within healthcare, the impacts are near countless and immensely profound, affecting operations, staffing, and service delivery, coupled with the health and wellbeing of our patients and communities. The far-reaching disruption and impacts of the pandemic did, however, illuminate many new mindsets and better practices, including around crisis communications.
RESPOND RAPIDLY, BUT BE SURE TO LISTEN AND ENGAGE
Crisis demands rapid response—even if all the facts and details have yet to be determined and analyzed. Immediately acknowledging the situation and its impacts is vital to demonstrating your organization is taking the situation seriously. Acknowledging the situation is not accepting fault, but rather committing to being part of the solution—even if you’re not the cause. And it can help ensure your organization is leading the crisis narrative from the start before misconception and misinformation have a chance to take hold.
COVID, in particular, has taught that as crisis evolves and new aspects come into play, it’s critical to continually acknowledge new developments and commit to seeking solutions and/or a resolution. Perhaps as profound: as part of crisis acknowledgement, it’s equally crucial to listen and engage with key stakeholders to analyze the situation to fully understand all of the impacts and, as well, to identify steps needed to put forth solutions. Key stakeholder engagement needs to start internally within your organization but should expand to external stakeholders as the situation merits.
LET EMPATHY DRIVE STRATEGY AND MESSAGING
Consider first the interests of key stakeholders and audiences—internal and external—rather than those held by the organization. Acknowledge crisis impacts relative to each stakeholder group and audience and express concern, understanding, and sympathy. First and foremost, address action and resolution steps related to key stakeholders and audiences in a step-by-step process by severity of crisis impacts. Here again, taking an empathic approach can avoid the crisis pitfalls of appearing tone deaf and uncaring and, in particular, self-centered and incompetent. Leading with empathy also cultivates trust critical to successfully navigating crisis.
BE BIDERCTIONAL (TWO-WAY)
All too often, crisis communications are entirely structured as one-way from the organization out and from leadership down. COVID illuminated the critical importance of setting up two-way channels that feed back into the organization how key prioritized audiences perceive the situation and response measures. These two-way channels can be digital, such as feedback forms on websites and Intranets, call-in hotlines, and traditional hard-copy comment cards placed in secured boxes.
Also, too, consider putting into place direct in-person channels such as team huddles, stakeholder meetings, and one-on-one “sit downs” with internal divisional heads and community leaders. In particular, these avenues can be leveraged to engage designated individuals to aid in communicating crisis messages to key internal and external audiences.
ONE SIZE DOESN’T “FIT ALL”
Responding rapidly to crisis, as well as putting out frequent communications on status and action steps (another best practice, for sure), can often compel organizations to concentrate on one-size-fits-all strategies and messaging. Taking this alluring silver bullet approach misses the mark in effectively reaching all critical audiences and can leave organizations appearing tone deaf and uncaring (a negative position that can be difficult to overcome). Audience identification can play a vital role to guard against making these missteps to ensure messaging is inclusive, tailored, and relevant, in addition to being seen and heard.
DON’T OVERLOOK THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF INTERNAL AUDIENCES
It can’t be emphasized enough how essential it is to prioritize internal audiences within the crisis response. It can be reflexive to focus on external audiences and then circle back internally, but your employees should be a top priority as the arms and legs of the organization, as well as its mind and mouth. This gets back to being bidirectional in your crisis approach, working internally on processing the crisis and its impacts, devising solutions, and communicating the response.
CRISIS READINESS IS BUILT INTO THE ROUTINE
Certainly, it’s critical to have a crisis communications plan at the ready should a situation erupt—and crises do tend to happen with little warning and at all hours, both day and night. Many organizations don’t have even a basic framework upon which to launch and build a response. During the pandemic, this flat footedness hampered rapid crisis response with organizations struggling to get grounded and move into action. But crisis preparedness should go beyond “the plan.”
Good crisis communications hinges on having channels, systems and processes already in place to leverage at a moment’s notice in order to engage stakeholders and audiences. Such shortcomings became evident in the mayhem of the COVID crisis with organizations realizing dedicated communications channels were absent and critically needed—in particular to rapidly get out audience-specific information. Similarly, COVID laid bare the necessity of building relationships with key stakeholders and audiences before crisis strikes. It’s what we do day-to-day, as part of our routine work, that positions organizations best for when crisis strikes so we can weather the storm, especially one that’s sustained and unyielding.
Kelly Bantle is Board President of HCNW and Principal at Allegiant Strategies NW. She teaches a four-week crisis communications and image management course as part of Portland State University’s Center for Executive and Professional Education Strategic Communications and PR certificate program.