Oh, Mary

Telling Your Story in the Time of Pandemic

August 17, 2020
Pat Shanahan

I have been thinking a lot about crises lately. Not only are we living through what is probably one of the biggest crises we all will face in our lifetimes, but I’m also spending a lot of my week advising companies and associations how to communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a rare time – a crisis few had planned for with seemingly no end in sight.

It’s also rare to work closely with multiple companies in full crisis mode as they communicate with their key stakeholders and the media. The experience has humbled me, given me new perspectives, and driven home some important reminders. So, what have I learned so far?

Be human. Suffering is inherent in any crisis, and in a pandemic, everyone is suffering on multiple levels. Still, I am amazed at how many tone-deaf, insensitive communications are in the media these days justifying some behavior, action, or mistake without seeming to care about the feelings of those affected. Often it is not that compassion is missing on the company’s part, just that in the race to explain a position, it is overlooked or glossed over. When it is your turn to write these responses for your clients or company, start from the heart. Then be sure the communications are thoroughly vetted by trusted advisors or people outside your organization. Read them back to yourself as if you were the affected party and make sure they convey the compassion you feel.

Don’t be afraid to tell your story. It is easy to want to crawl under a rock and hope you can wait there until the crisis has passed, but in the end, this rarely prevents and can actually encourage more negative coverage. In any crisis, transparency is paramount, and your side of the story will provide important context and balance. Most people will forgive an honest mistake, but they won’t forgive a cover-up, or a mistake for which you show no remorse or make no effort to correct. In the beginning of this pandemic, a lot of essential businesses had to continue to work without much information about the virus, and without the necessary guidance or resources. Sharing what worked and what you corrected as you learned more about the virus is a public service, and others can learn from your experience.

Rely on science. Every good crisis communications plan identifies experts who can provide important information when a crisis strikes. This is particularly true with COVID-19. Nurturing relationships with key scientific experts can help you avoid future crises and can provide much needed third-party information when a crisis is impossible to avoid.

Crisis communications planning is caring for your company and yourself. I heard some companies say that crisis communications planning doesn’t really help because the real crises are the ones that are difficult or impossible to predict. I completely disagree. A good crisis communications plan and a process that keeps contingency planning part of your team’s regular activities keeps all systems honed and in place for when they are needed most. 

There will always be another crisis. And the likelihood is that it will come from a direction you never expected. But even if the next crisis comes from out of the blue, your preparation now will help everyone respond more quickly and efficiently, and this in turn will engender calmness and confidence, which is good for everyone’s mental health. 

So, when you think of how best to take care of yourself, your team, and your company, put a crisis communications plan on the top of your list. Now is a great time to start.