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3 Tips for Communicating in Times of Chaos

7/28/2020
— Pete Wootton, EVP 

To say we live in challenging times feels like an understatement. The world continues to reel from a global pandemic. Social injustices are forcing us to have difficult and critical conversations. If you’re a brand communicator, the past few weeks have been an unprecedented roller coaster. All of us as are struggling to grasp the right moves to make right now. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s OK. We all want to acknowledge the unrest, the pain and the complex feelings experienced. This is true for all our audiences: customers, communities where we do business and most of all our employees. As brands and individuals, we yearn to do our part, to let the world know what we value and join the conversation. But we want to do so in a way that feels sensitive, thoughtful and true. What’s the best approach?

The painful truth of the world we share is there is much work to do. The complexities and chaos of the past few weeks and months will give way to new challenges. And as communicators, we best be prepared. I’ve been speaking with clients and colleagues about how brands can communicate clearly their values with authenticity in times of crises. While there’s no one size fits all approach, there are a few principles to keep top of mind as brands (and as citizens) when we’re called to speak up and communicate who we are and what we stand for.

1. Prioritize employees

 Leverage inside voices quickly

It is critical for companies to connect with employees as quickly as possible in times of tumult, to reinforce company values, purpose and behaviors. In moments of controversy, employees expect crystal-clear articulation of where an organization stands, and for whom and what they advocate. For example, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s shocking killing, this is precisely the moment to reiterate your company’s explicit anti-racist stance and offer support for needed change. It’s likely your company has resources or employee resource groups (ERGs) for employees who advocate for underrepresented voices. These are your internal subject-matter experts you want to lean on heavily and activate as part of your decision-making steps and messaging.

Lead with empathy

Remember: Your employees are hurting—especially employees whose identities may make them feel particularly vulnerable in times of crisis. Be thoughtful about the issues and the language you use. Many leaders I’ve spoken to have expressed genuine concern about the safety of their employees and the communities in which they live, which I think is a healthy and useful attitude to bring to your communications. Be compassionate, but don’t concern-troll. Strike the right balance between awareness that each individual experiences the world differently, and don’t make assumptions. Yet also be sensitive to the fact some people might be hurting more than others.

Walk the walk

In all communications effort, make sure you’re able to back up your words with actions. Think seriously about expanding your companywide initiatives based on the urgent calls to action represented in times of unrest and disruption.

Welcome difficult conversations

As communicators, we need to be fearless when discussing truths with honesty, whether it’s brand limitations, product attributes or market realities. Same for the challenges inherent in the communities where we do business. Consider inviting a conversation with your employees about injustice and inequality, about what your company is doing well and where it can do better. Do not be afraid to openly recognize where your company needs to improve and be intentional about re-evaluating your business practices and working toward solutions. This could be done in a virtual CEO town hall format. If you do not currently have an ERG for underrepresented people and their allies in your company, now is the time to establish one. If you don’t normally talk about injustice and inequality, this is the time to engage. Be authentic. Anticipate employee responses and be prepared to facilitate an ongoing and expansive dialogue. Note: You do NOT need to have all the answers to have these discussions. That would be impossible, frankly. These conversations will be hard, but they will also be worthwhile. Most important: Listen with the intention to act.  

If you want to take a deeper dive into using brand purpose to guide employee engagement in challenging times, this guide might be helpful.

2. Scrap “business as usual”

Press the pause button

We recommend companies pause any planned external communications during moments of significant unrest. Think about your customers and their expectations of how you show up. If you can, delay launches and big announcements — at best, your message will be lost; at worst, you’ll look tone deaf. Do not continue with your normal flow of social media posts, but remember …

Silence is not an option

Craft a response statement in case media or influencers ask for your company’s point of view. Here’s where you really want to lean on your brand’s purpose. Think about how you can articulate your company’s response to the current crisis through the lens of what it has always valued most. Talk about the company’s foundational values as well as D&I efforts if applicable, both inside the company and out. This statement can then be used to proactively craft external social media posts on corporate and executive handles, and as a guiding star for leaders who are asked by the media to comment.

Re-evaluate when and how to resume regular activities

Mindfully determine if and how to proceed with announcements based on the zeitgeist. If your team and advisors feel good about it, resume normal communications. But if the protests, conversations and news coverage are still dominating, it’s best to continue to pause and re-evaluate daily.

3. Use your platform for good 

Determine your comfort level

Not all companies are comfortable engaging publicly in all conversations. But certain global events call everyone to respond. Evaluate how and why you engage with the media. Can you continue the conversation beyond the immediate moment? Gut check every step you make. Can you offer more than a simple platitude? Is your stance authentic? Whatever you do it must contribute positively to the solution. People are savvy to lip-service. Be honest before acting.

Leverage internal assets to engage externally

Re-post your CEO’s internal email, or excerpts of it, on LinkedIn and highlight certain statements on your social media channels. If your CEO writes blog posts, this could be another avenue to express support externally. Do not try to get “credit” for adding your voice. It is important to recognize that this is not an opportunity to build your company’s reputation or brand, nor is it a box that must be checked. A human tragedy demands a human response.

Reach out to your community

Consider engaging with community groups focused on addressing hot-button issues such as hate, racism and inequality. Invite subject-matter experts from varied points of view to talk with your employees/customers. You could even arrange “boots on the ground” efforts for employees to engage in specific community-related relief efforts like post-protest cleanups, food or material resources collections, and other hands-on initiatives.  

Final thought: Operate with heart

Above all, remember at the heart of every cry for change is a very human heart that has been neglected, damaged and hurt. These challenges are invitations to operate — and communicate — with kindness, empathy and awareness. At WE, we talk about using the gift of communications to drive positive change. This is an opportunity to do just that, but it must be done thoughtfully.

 

Our Global CEO and Founder, Melissa Waggener Zorkin, writes often about how bold purpose can help crisis-proof businesses. Your purposeful communications strategy can help unite people and contribute to the positive changes our world desperately needs. It’s not easy. Yes, it can feel paralyzing. But bringing people together, leading by example and doing our part to contribute to the change our world desperately needs is well worth the effort. Wouldn’t you agree?