How business leaders communicate during crises can be the difference maker that solidifies customer relationships, boosts morale among an employee base, drives a well-organized and cohesive response to challenges, engenders trust among stakeholders, signals strength to the market and builds credibility among shareholders. Of course, the downsides of communicating poorly in the face of adversity can also be catastrophic.
As follows are the top 10 tips for successful communication with key stakeholders of a private business during a crisis. These tips are in the context of learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic – including the very early stages – but are broadly applicable for any crisis facing a company.
1) Gather senior leaders together to craft the right message for each communication. BBH, like many other substantial private businesses, extolled the virtues of assembling senior leaders across business functions, including lead internal and external communications professionals, for fast decision-making beginning early in the COVID-19 crisis. Together these leadership teams not only come up with the right solutions to challenges quickly, but also help craft the most effective messaging and communications plan for those solutions.
2) Define decision-making authority and establish a communications workflow. Organization is critical in managing communications. A common best practice is having a written breakdown of who has the authority to communicate about various topics. Ideally this already exists, and the policy need only to be reinforced. If it does not exist, it should be created by senior leadership. Once leadership makes a decision, there should be a clear set of steps to be taken to ensure that the communication reaches all the intended recipients. For example:
- If an employee begins feeling ill and was working from a company facility recently, who makes the decision about whether that facility is closed, how that is messaged and how it ultimately reaches all the stakeholders who need to know? Are all employees aware of who the message should come from? How fast can the message be delivered to avoid uncertainty, confusion and speculation?
- If there is a resulting policy change with respect to how the company services its customers, who has the authority to communicate that change, what is the message and how is it passed to customers?
- What is the role for managers and the broad leadership team in communications? How will they remain coordinated and convey a consistent message?
3) Communicate with all key stakeholders. During challenging times, leaders of private businesses should ensure that they are communicating with customers/clients, employees, private shareholders, partners/vendors and the marketplace effectively and at an appropriate frequency. As follows are some examples of necessary communications with stakeholders:
Customers: If there will be a disruption, leaders should disclose the nature of it, considering when it will impact the client.
- If the impact is immediate, acknowledge the issue(s), any interim actions that will be taken and commit to following up with another update at a date and time that is reasonable given the severity.
- If the impact will be delayed, announce the issue when a solution is developed, along with a planned mitigation strategy.
- Management should consider communicating issues to the board and/or owners early, along with the present strategy, any unknowns and a schedule of updates.
- Where independent boards or nonfamily managers exist, engage the owners to identify conflicts in values as soon as possible (e.g., maintain stable workforce and strong liquidity position). Engage ownership to resolve conflicts and trade-offs in values as appropriate.
4) The “how” is equally important to the “what.” The method of communication should be befitting the circumstance and the audience. For example:
- Leaders should use the highest form of interactive media available when communicating to employees and private shareholders. If face-to-face is not available, use video if possible.
- For customers/clients, if a disruption must be communicated, discuss the magnitude of impact with relationship management professionals to determine who should deliver the message and through what medium.
- For customers and the marketplace, create content streams that address customer service and thought leadership on social media and via email.
5) Err on the side of overcommunicating. Between the barrage of news and challenges – health, financial and emotional – facing everyone, it is difficult to maintain the attention of key stakeholders. We recommend determining the appropriate cadence of communications for all of your stakeholders and a schedule of outreach. Also, validating that stakeholders have received important information by checking in with them periodically is critical to ensure communications are “landing.”
6) Be transparent. As much as trust can be built during a crisis, it can also be broken. When communicating, especially difficult messages, it is important to be honest, candid, balanced and speak to the leader’s goals in how to deal with the crisis while encouraging an interactive dialogue. Your stakeholders are facing difficult circumstances, and they will appreciate honesty and authenticity, even if it is a difficult message.
7) Be empathetic. For all communications, leaders should strive to “put themselves in the shoes” of the intended audience – many of whom have sick loved ones, are experiencing financial hardship or are stressed. Communicating certain information may be difficult for both those delivering and receiving it, but if your communications are heartfelt and genuine, they will be more likely to lead to the intended outcome and reflect more positively on your organization. A few points related to empathy:
- Tone is critical. Avoid joking or overly celebratory or boastful communications.
- Show gratitude where you can. If your employees are going above and beyond or your customers are acting as a true partner, tell them. Regardless of the challenges they are facing, they may appreciate it.
- Relax the formality. Many people you are communicating with are social distancing from home. Get on their level. Leaders who create videos from home with low production value and wearing casual clothing will likely resonate more with their audience.
8) Communicate in line with the company’s values. When difficult circumstances present themselves, it is critical that businesses communicate in alignment with their organizational values. In fact, a company’s values can be a guidepost for how to approach communications in a given situation.
9) Prepare for downside scenarios. Many companies are already undertaking scenario analyses with respect to their operations, sales and finances; they should be prepared to communicate in worst-case scenarios as well, answering questions like, what will we say, who will deliver the message and what medium(s) will we use? Leaders should assume that everything they say internally will be leaked to social media and the press and communicate accordingly.
10) Even in the midst of a crisis, not all communications need to be crisis communications! Companies that launch a new product, complete a transaction, create thought leadership or currently are helping to fight the crisis – like fashion brands making masks for healthcare workers – can still talk about what they are doing to the marketplace. But, proceed with caution. The “what,” “how” and overall tone are extremely important.
For any leaders who would like to discuss the topic of crisis communications further, a BBH professional would be happy to speak to you, or you can send questions to BBHPrivateBanking@bbh.com.