Communications during crisis

Interview with Lauren Shantall, Director, Scout PR and Social Media

Protean does a lot of work assisting clients to prepare for effective response to crisis and disruption through the development of Crisis Management and Business Continuity Programmes. We therefore understand the importance of effective Crisis Communication. We engaged with Lauren Shantall, Director of Scout (a PR and social media agency) to get an expert view on Crisis Communications during the time of Covid-19. This is what she had to say:

During the past few weeks we have learnt a lot – explain what the last few weeks were like from a PR and Comms perspective?

I can speak from my own agency’s perspective and also share what has happened to some of my colleagues in other agencies. Our clients in the tourism and hospitality industries have been very badly affected due to the lockdown and the loss of revenue is enormous, and in some cases, I fear, crippling, and they have been forced to cut-back on communications services. This worries me intensely, as the ones most hard hit are the ones that will need the most assistance.

There isn’t a single one of our clients that has not had to change its approach. We have spent the last couple of weeks revising all social media messaging and press releases that had been pre-planned for this time, as they were no longer relevant or appropriate. We also spent a lot of time workshopping tone, approach, sensitivity, goals, and so on. We both advise and co-create the way forward together with our clients.

The messaging has been varied as some have had to close entirely, and some are essential food services, and some continue to work remotely.

As a team, we have worked many, many hours of overtime, more so than usual, in order to be able to respond quickly and agilely to each announcement as it was made. Our clients have, too.

We have moved into tactical, short-term responses that will provide value for people locked in their homes at this time. For example, our client Herman Miller’s R&D has provided us with research on how to best look after your wellness when working remotely, which we are in the process of sharing out.

We have also been helping our clients with internal communications – taking the lead from what they have expressed to us and then writing sincere and often impassioned letters to their staff, customers and stakeholders keeping them informed of events, as changes unfold.

What were the trends and main take-aways?

From a comms perspective, connecting with people despite digital distance and social distancing and finding ways for brands can express Empathy, Solidarity & Support in the digital sphere.

Except for the obvious reputational risk during communication, what other risks do you think organisations face if they don’t communicate effectively during times like these?

Staying silent is a danger – people fill it with assumptions.

Tone deafness is a danger – some brands are proceeding as though it is business as usual. When it is very much business as unusual. Global conversations are dominated by questions about the new normal. I think you can lose both the conversation and your audience if you don’t locate yourself appropriately within your context. Remain relevant.

Are the any opportunities – and what are those?

Forbes has written about the advent of the “coronapreneur” – where businesses are responding to what we are calling “new wants” – these include home schooling, online classes and e-learning, online entertainment, online shopping, e-delivery. So, I do think there are new wealth building opportunities and I think there are opportunities for existing businesses to try and take part of their offering online or deepen their digital dimensions and then communicate about those.

The opportunity is to ensure that your online communications are up to speed – for example do you have an online chat representative on your site and your Facebook? Do you have a proper digital marketing and social media marketing strategy in place? Etc.

There are some ample opportunities for CSI initiatives to adapt or re-align strategies and to communicate this out. For example, our client Spier packed food for 2 500 vulnerable members of the community on the 26th of March, ahead of the lockdown, and then distributed these relief boxes. My agency Scout distributed news and photographs of this initiative and it received a very warm reception in the media.

Another client of ours, Deli Spices is donating food ingredients to help make the donation of 50 000 sausages to the needy possible, which is spearheaded by a client of theirs, Oscars Deli Meats. They’re also donating to the Seaview Spar Food Drive – and we’ll be messaging this across social media.

Deli Spices is a large B2B supplier of functional ingredients to the food industry and staff continue to operate at this time as an essential food service – we are already being asked by media outlets to share images of their employees at work. Our service industry “heroes” are definitely coming into the spotlight at this time. This is another opportunity to communicate about the company and what it stands for.

The much-needed generosity and solidarity that will help get us through the pandemic are also opportunities. Come up with a new initiative and communicate out about it. Good karma begets goodwill and I believe that in the months to come customers will rather support brands that are acting generously and going beyond the required corporate responsibility levels.

I spoke to a colleague last week who stated that “competition will be a dirty word post Corona” we will all need each other very much, not only to help get us through the crisis on a personal and emotional front, but to help rebuild our economy. I see multiple collaborations with several brands at once coming to the fore as brands support each other more extensively through cleverly combined marketing efforts that harness the comms reach of multiple channels – even competitor brands may start to collaborate.

I always say ongoing communication is just as important as initial communication – what would you say would be your advice for clients for the coming weeks?

Be prepared and have various types of messaging prepared, so that you are ready for the possible scenarios come April 16. For example, in the case of a restaurant, there is no trading at present, but you can reasonably prep for:

  1. The lockdown being extended for a further period
  2. The lockdown being lifted but only deliveries or call and collect allowed
  3. The lockdown being lifted but only limited guests in the restaurant at one time, and no alcohol after 6pm
  4. The lockdown being lifted but only limited guests in the restaurant at one time, but no bans on alcohol
  5. No restrictions post lockdown

Draft for all of the above and be ready to push play with the appropriate response on your website, social media, newsletter, digital marketing, internal communications and stakeholder relations.

I don’t recommend a “wait-and-see” as this puts you on a back foot in terms of timing, and I don’t think anyone can afford any further delays in trade.

Consistency is important, have the messaging and the frequency of the messaging planned, so that you are communicating regularly, and agilely in response to any changes. This is a period of high change and a measure of flexibility and quick turn-around time to adapt messaging is necessary.

After Covid-19, what do you think organisations can do differently to be better prepared for any crisis?

As much as we all seek to avoid crisis, it is an unfortunate inevitability and thus it is better to prepare for it as much as possible than hope and pray it won’t happen. If you are running a business, part of your responsibility to ensure its longevity is to futureproof as much as you are able.
I think it is important to read widely, even if some of the futurist trends are speculative, as it is important to think about how technology or the possibility of biological warfare, or communicable disease, may impact on us.

We recommend to our clients that they pre-prepare statements for a variety of scenarios. For example, in the case of flooding, fire, a stock market crash, a racist incident, and so on…

In the age of social media, much damage can happen in the space of a few hours, while the social media manager escalates an issue to management. I don’t think you can afford the luxury of a delay. Rather have approved responses on hand that can be sensibly adapted.

With the traditional media, if you do not respond timeously, the publication will run the story anyway, indicating that you “declined to comment”. Without the context as to why you could not or did not respond, the reader will fill in the gaps on their own and make various assumptions, and often erroneous ones, that you didn’t want to respond because you are guilty or hiding the truth. This creates a negative perception that is hard to undo.

In light of the empathic response that the coronavirus has warranted, and how this is likely to affect how we all do business with one another going forward, I ask that organisations relook the tone of their communications, and where appropriate issue communications that come across as being human and caring.

If it is a scenario where the brand is very much at fault and a mistake has been made, I feel it is more important to apologise and indicate what reparations will be made than to obfuscate and try and avoid accountability as the latter will result in a customer loss of confidence, or worse, a backlash.

In a time of no crisis, identify a team within your organization who are best equipped to lead and manage a crisis comms task force, so that you can rally quickly, instead of scrambling around.
Make sure a comms channel is already in place for this task force – a slack channel, Whatsapp group or shared drive where info can be shared and quickly accessed by all. Make sure the group is maintained and their comms tools are regularly refreshed and kept up to date.

Identify a spokesperson or spokespersons within the organization, and if possible, provide them with media training. For example, if your incident involves a female customer, it is better to have a female spokesperson. Language is also a consideration, depending on the media channel. For example, if the media interview is on RSG or Umhlobowenene it is preferable to have someone who can respond in the media’s language of choice.

Ideally, this person should be confident, likeable, level-headed and comfortable speaking in front of camera or mic, or directly to a journo. How your company or brand comes across will sit with the spokesperson so please allow them to be as prepared as possible to field a range of questions, some sticky, some sweet.

Create a crisis comms case studies best practice manual that your team can refer to. Highlight the many brand fails – and triumphs – out there as a way to guide the team as to what to avoid and how to avoid it.

In the event of a really unprecedented situation to which you don’t have any answers or pre-prepared responses, admit that you don’t know but are doing everything you can to find out quickly, and provide a timeline for when you will have more info to share.