Transparency, Empathy, Consistency, Frequency – Keys to Crisis Communications

Carol Beaumier, Senior Managing Director Risk and Compliance – New York

On June 2, 2020, Protiviti Advisory Board member Susan Molinari and Protiviti Executive Vice President Patrick Scott joined Protiviti Managing Director and moderator Frank Kurre for a webinar discussion entitled “How Should You Communicate with Customers During a Crisis?”The webinar explored a number of questions around best practices for communicating with clients during this time of COVID-19 and social unrest.

There were a number of valuable takeaways from the panel’s exchanges, including the following:

  • Corporate communications should be transparent. No one expects a business to have all the answers under these difficult circumstances and it is okay to admit that.
  • Communications should be empathetic and focus on how the company is trying to help its employees, its customers, its community and those on the front line of dealing with the crisis – a focus on the fact that we are all in this together and what we can do to make things better now and tomorrow.
  • Communications should be consistent, i.e., employees and customers should be hearing the same messages, although the level of detail may differ.
  • Communications should be frequent. Some studies have suggested that employees and customers may look more to businesses they trust than government officials to provide accurate information on the current state.
  • Efforts to sell products or services by taking advantage of the situation will backfire.

In addition to the curated questions explored during the webinar, audience participants submitted a number of additional questions the panelists did not have time to address. With input from the panelists, some of these follow-up questions are addressed below.

Q: When does “frequent and often” [communication] become too much?

The cadence of communication likely depends on thestage of the crisis, e.g., at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. people were clamoring for information and reassurance, so more was better when it came to communication. Now, as many locales and businesses are focused on re-opening, most customers (and employees) are most interested in what this means in practical terms, what it means for individual businesses. That may argue for limiting communications to when there is something new to say.

Q: Do you recommend video updates vs. written updates and is there a unique benefit to each approach?

The medium used for the communication is probably less important than the message; however, video communications, such as webinars, may be more useful if they allow for real-time engagement with the audience, particularly in the case of employees.

Q: What is the feedback/lessons learned on how communications can be improved?

The most important lesson learned is that it is imperative to build and maintain trust– by being transparent, admitting that you don’t have all the answers, and acknowledging when you have made a mistake and/or need to change course because events didn’t unfold the way you expected.

Q: Would you agree that brands with strong customer loyalty going into the COVID-19 crisis had a significant advantage, but also had the most to lose depending on how they managed the customer relationship?

The old adage “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” probably does ring true in the time of a crisis. Through COVID-19, however, we have also seen significant opportunity for medium and small companies to enhance their brands. Consider, for example, Ponchies, a previously struggling maker of headbands and scrunchies, that pivoted to making face masks, and Puritan Medical Products which makes cotton swabs for COVID-19 testing. Big or small, the key to brand management is to demonstrate that you are doing something to help.

Q: How can brands hurt themselves during the COVID-19 crisis?

There are some obvious ways brands can hurt themselves during a crisis, such as being “tone deaf” to crisis in their advertising (e.g., running ads that focus on activities that were not possible during the crisis) and on gouging or being perceived to be gouging customers on the costs of goods in short supply.  

Q: Given that we are experiencing two generational events simultaneously, what platforms and initiatives are organizations using to be empathetic and transparent with associates as well as customers, while adding value to making the situations better as opposed to only verbalizing concerns?

COVID-19 is not something most businesses can “fix.” Businesses can add value and make the COVID-19 situation better by doing their best to keep their employees and customers safe now and into the future. However, other than helping to stop the spread of the virus, and advocating and perhaps contributing to funding for vaccines, they cannot eliminate the problem and could not have prevented it from occurring. On the contrary, many would argue that businesses could have and should have done more to address the underlying issue that is at the heart of the current social unrest – the social and economic inequality that exists in the U.S. and across the globe. For that reason, more business leaders are committing to actions to redress this issue. Those actions include standing with the protestors, increasing direct community involvement to make a difference, advocating for legal change, committing to close the inequality gap in their own companies, and providing financial support for initiatives that will help advance those who have suffered because of the gap.

What has become increasingly important during the social unrest is that business leaders take a stand. A handwritten sign in the window of a small shop in my New York City neighborhood displays the following Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In this seminal period in our history, businesses that remain neutral are likely to suffer backlash from employees and customers.  

For more information on managing through these crises, see our Enterprise Resilience webinar series.

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