Crisis communications are more important than ever

Social distancing, isolation, closures bring a new challenge to communicators

The new world order is evolving quickly. Communication is vital to just about everything we do, and now we’re doing it primarily on remote platforms, streaming more video and viewing more online content than ever before. While everyone is faced with challenges arising from limited personal interactions – and trying their best to stay abreast of the latest coronavirus news – they are using the internet in ways only George Orwell could have imagined. Is it 1984 yet?

Take the phenomenon occurring on the national and world stage: the president at the forefront of change. (No, this isn’t an opinion about him but the way he’s communicating with the electorate.) Press briefings on television are now a nightly staple. While pundits can comment, the president has taken his Twitter strategy – that of going directly to the public – and turned his wide-ranging newscast into an opportunity to put his messages forward with few, if any, filters. The same holds true for social media.

Companies, organizations and government agencies have turned to the internet to provide information to a very curious, uncertain public. We’ve all seen the ads, right? Corporations are using the airwaves and social sites to reduce fear, build brand identity and tell you, “We’re all in this together.” To say crisis communications have been turned up a few notches would be a gross understatement.

Crisis communicators have never faced such a plethora of challenges, including instant crises with every unfortunate test result and miscommunication (whether intentional or not) disseminated to the masses. Deana Haworth, APR, Hirons’ COO, has been providing the business community with guidance on how the pandemic is impacting public relations, advertising and media, offering expert insight into where this all is heading.
As a person who specializes in crisis communications and a doctoral candidate with a focus on social media and crisis communications, I would say there’s no “textbook” on dealing with such a massive and destructive upheaval as seen with the COVID-19 outbreak. While certain rules apply, like getting accurate information out quickly to avoid rumor mongering, the industry rulebook will have to be rewritten following this pandemic.
Just about every crisis communicator in the country has struggled with the complexity and ongoing morphing of this unprecedented situation. However, some of the basic tenets of crisis management still apply.

For example, take the service industry: Door signs at our favorite restaurants are simply not enough to stay afloat and reassure loyal customers. Restaurants have expanded their websites to add content on their ever-changing status, the future of their business and, of course, their carryout options.

Some innovators have gone from making shirts to making masks. The news coverage on these entrepreneurs has been mostly positive, but one should never become complacent. As any experienced crisis communicator will tell you, expect the unexpected.

The Payroll Protection Plan, for example, has dominated conversations as the news media and public discuss how large Fortune 500 companies have received millions and millions of dollars. It’s likely their public relations teams expressed very few concerns – or had those concerns dismissed – when the companies moved to get their money. Alas, many of those loans became lightning rods for controversy and criticism.
The new world order is more than just a bag of takeout – it’s a smorgasbord of uncertainty, confusion and worry about how we’re going to move forward from a seminal moment in human history.

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