Communicating in a crisis
Updated: Apr 20
These are unprecedented times for any business. There’s no rulebook about how to communicate when you’re cancelling events or closing down temporarily. Should you be apologetic or sympathetic? Light-hearted or serious? Formal or relatable?
In this post, we take a look at some example crisis comms and put together some advice about how to talk to your audience when the unexpected happens.
Give people something new
With the Covid-19 outbreak well underway, you’ve probably had update emails from nearly everyone you subscribe to. To avoid overwhelming people, make sure your communication either tells them something useful, or gives them something to feel good about. Dave Grohl took the second approach with their tour delay email:
FOO FIGHTERS VAN TOUR 2020 APRIL DATES POSTPONED Hi, this is Dave. Remember me? The guy who wouldn’t even postpone a show when my goddamn leg was falling off?
Well… playing a gig with a sock full of broken bones is one thing, but playing a show when YOUR health and safety is in jeopardy is another…
We fuckin’ love you guys. So let’s do this right and rain check shit. The album is done, and it’s fuckin' killer. The lights and stage are in the trucks, ready to go. The SECOND we are given the go ahead, we’ll come tear shit up like we always do. Promise.
Now go wash your hands. Dave
Judging by the amount of memes being created about the virus, people have different ways of dealing with situations like these. As long as you’re not insensitive, humour can be a good approach.
What if you’re not confident in your comedic skills? Informative is the way to go. People are worried about whether they’ll have enough food, or whether they can get their money back for that expensive holiday they booked. Information is reassuring, so keep your audience in the loop.
When Trump announced the travel ban, the tourism industry were as surprised as everyone else. Despite this, hotels.com got out a helpful email detailing what they knew and what they were still working out:
If you are impacted by these new rules and cannot travel to the United States during this 30-day period, please know that we are working quickly with our travel partners to address this unprecedented situation and to take care of you.
If you have only booked lodging via Hotels.com we will ensure you will have the option to cancel and be refunded. If you have booked air travel or a travel package, we are working with our airline partners to understand how their cancellation policies will work.
We will contact you shortly with more details and next steps including how to confirm any changes to your travel plans and how the cancellation process will work.
This email won’t win any awards for creativity, but it does its job perfectly. It’s reassuring, informative and honest – everything people need right now.
Think about what you can offer people, whether that’s reassuring information or comforting humour
Front-load your content – people are getting bombarded with emails and need to quickly see what yours is about
Keep language simple and direct – people are getting bombarded with Covid-19 emails so help them out
Act out of character for your brand – Dave Grohl’s email works because it sounds like him
Stick to your regular marketing plan – communications are all over the place now so you need to take each day as it comes
Attempt humour if you’re not funny!
Get your house in order
Let’s step back a bit. Coronavirus might be the only thing on everyone’s minds right now, but businesses have had to deal with tough situations before, and they’ll have to again.
An all-too-common crisis situation is a data breach. British Airways suffered a major hit back in 2018 when the card details of nearly 400,000 customers were hacked. They put out an apology from Alex Cruz, the chief executive:
From 22:58 BST 21 August 2018 until 21:45 BST 5 September 2018 inclusive, the personal and financial details of customers making or changing bookings at ba.com, and on our app were compromised. The stolen data did not include travel or passport information.
The breach has been resolved and our website is working normally.
We’re deeply sorry, but you may have been affected. We recommend that you contact your bank or credit card provider and follow their recommended advice.
We take the protection of your personal information very seriously. Please accept our deepest apologies for the worry and inconvenience that this criminal activity has caused.
Further information can be found at ba.com.
Unfortunately, the apology came after the breach was reported in the news and on Twitter. And even after the apology, many call centre staff were apparently unaware of the situation when customers started getting in touch.
The email itself is fine. Although there are a few places it could be improved, it gives clear and straightforward information, along with advice on what to do next. But the backlash BA faced provides a great example of how important it is to get everything else right too. Your comms need to work in context – you need information on your website, training for your staff, and good timing to show you’re being proactive.
Keep everyone in the loop – from customers to internal stakeholders
Back up what you say, and include details of how you’re doing that in your comms
Write sincerely, as if you were addressing a customer directly
Be too distant – lots of passive voice or formal language will make you seem cold and uncaring
Ramble on – get straight to the point or you’ll risk annoying people even more
Forget your reader – you’re apologising to someone, so think about what they need to know, not what you want to say
Own up to mistakes
Whether it’s a product recall or a miscommunication, at some point you’ll probably have to mop up after something going wrong. Although it might seem like a disaster, these situations can sometimes end up being a good thing for your brand. Research shows that 87% of people are ‘more likely to purchase and remain loyal to a company or brand that handles recall honorably and responsibly, even though they clearly made mistakes that led to a safety or quality problem.’
When you’ve made a mistake, any communication you send out should, above all, be honest and informative.
‘You cannot talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.’ Jane Lawrie, Director of Communications, Tesco
Don’t try to hide from responsibility or keep the bad news from your audience. In fact, the sooner you get the truth out there, the sooner you can control the conversation.
Act quickly, before social media or press put their own spin on things
Be transparent – the truth always comes out eventually anyway
Use clear, efficient language so people can easily learn what they need to know
Be too apologetic – no one likes grovelling, it’s better if you can do something about the situation
Blame others, even if the situation seems unfair to you
Be too extreme in your tone – if you try to be funny or overly formal, you’ll sound like you’re not being authentic
Think about others
And so we get back to the talk of the day. Coronavirus has thrown everything we thought we knew about business out the window. Pubs and restaurants are closing, international travel is basically nonexistent, and events are being cancelled all over the world.
Looking through some of the communications we’ve seen, most tend to focus on the community spirit, talking about looking after each other in this difficult time. Take this extract of a press release from a coalition of supermarkets:
We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop. We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.
Together we can make sure we are looking out for family, friends, neighbours. Together we will care for those around us and those who are elderly, vulnerable or choosing to remain at home.
Or this example from Jürgen Klopp’s message to Liverpool supporters:
The message from the team to our supporters is only about your well-being. Put your health first. Don’t take any risk. Think about the vulnerable in our society and act where possible with compassion for them.
Please look after yourselves and look out for each other.
You’ll Never Walk Alone,
Or this, from Airbnb:
The safety and well-being of our global community are our top priority, and we're committed to keeping you informed as the situation evolves.
In situations like these, making the message about others, not yourself, is a safe bet. Show you care and that you’re doing everything you can to resolve things. Your business might be hit hard by circumstances, but people are scared for their own health, and they want to hear reassurance and compassion.
Show you’re a business full of real people who care
Add to the conversation – there’s a lot of noise out there at the moment, so if you need to make an announcement, make sure you’re telling people something new and useful
Write the same way you would speak to your reader in this situation, using informal language and straightforward vocabulary
Try to push things too far – humour or swearing, for example, can seem inapprorpiate unless it’s done well
Talk about yourself too much and make sure there are more ‘you’s than ‘we’s and ‘I’s
Overreach yourself – if you’re not an expert on viruses, for example, probably best to leave medical advice to those in the know
You can’t predict what will happen next or how it will affect your business. But the key to any communication at the moment is being flexible. Whether you need to increase frequency of emails or create new lists of priority customers, you’ll just have to adapt to changes as they happen.
If your communications are honest, timely, useful and reassuring, that's all anyone can ask of you.