When is a crisis not considered a crisis?
The ongoing and evolving COVID-19 pandemic has placed organizations and business leaders in a constant state of crisis management. Just when we think we’ve rounded a corner and things are getting “back to normal” at work, a new variant emerges and we’re almost back to square one.
For communications managers, this has translated into a continued and heightened state of crisis communications as they support their organizations. It’s hard to find a positive side to COVID-19 in the workplace, but if I had to choose one, it would be the recognition of the added value of communications and public relations teams on the bottom line. In fact, a recent executive summary of Ragan’s landmark study reports that communications professionals have been called upon to develop and spread the message about new policies that affect internal and external stakeholders. Their role has become more vital as they have helped their organizations stay focused and moving forward.
At the end of the day, it’s all about communicating clearly and effectively with the audiences that matter most to your business. For AEM and our members, our key audiences range from our customers, members, resellers, partners to suppliers, investors, vendors, employees, future employees and the general public. And instead of dusting off that crisis communications planning folder when a crisis hits, which is usually rare, communicators now keep that folder wide open on their screens. We work on this almost daily as we navigate through the continuous demands of daily and weekly needs (perhaps variation by variation) to develop and send messages to these critical stakeholders.
At AEM, we went into crisis communications mode in January 2020 when we first heard about COVID. It was just three months before ConExpo-Con/AGG & IFPE was held, which ended up being the last major industry event held in the US before the trip was halted, with more than 130,000 entrepreneurs construction and industry exhibitors gathering for business in Las Vegas for the show March 10-14.
The timing of the show and our diligent and unwavering crisis management team and communications strategy were key factors contributing to our ability to run the show successfully and showcase our industry.
Fast forward to now as we still manage the challenges of COVID and the continued need to communicate with our members, exhibitors, suppliers, sister associations and show attendees. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s not quite crisis communications anymore, and it’s certainly not “back to normal” communications.
And throughout the past two years, we’ve seen some priorities rise to the top that will hopefully endure if we ever return to “normal” times:
Feed your ambassadors — Effective communication takes place from the inside out. Your internal team should be your top communication priority. Not only do you want to express the work you are doing to keep your employees safe, but you also want them to be aware of the messages you are sending out. This requires a constant supply of information and updates.
Employees at all levels are your best ambassadors for your company and they need to hear the messages from company leaders frequently and clearly. If they’re unsure of something, you can bet your customers may be unsure as well. And that’s why at AEM, we’ve increased our staff meetings, rallies (mostly virtual), and internal messaging to reduce uncertainty and improve messaging alignment.
We commend our member companies who have come together strongly to focus on internal communications during the pandemic. We’ve heard countless success stories of how corporate CEOs have engaged in daily and weekly all-staff meetings, some held globally, to show support for their teams. And we know these efforts continue as the focus on internal communications becomes increasingly important.
Anticipate questions and align with the extended team — I never thought that learning to play chess would help me in my communications career. But thinking three to four steps (or steps) ahead is an essential part of any communications strategy. It’s not always about what the message should be (which is important), it’s more often about how that message impacts and what questions it triggers.
At AEM, we work with a wide range of audiences, from C-suite business leaders to construction contractors and farmers, and everything in between. What may be an important message for a business owner may be less so for an equipment end user who is more concerned with other things.
By bringing together a messaging team from a cross section of our departments, including exhibitions, operations, marketing, membership, communications, public relations, etc., we work collaboratively to determine the right messages that not only eases worries, but also builds confidence. and momentum for our next show, event, conference, etc.
We prepare FAQs, update messages on our websites, and determine who and how to deliver communications to which audiences. What might have been done in silos before is now coordinated collaboratively.
Be transparent and clear “It’s okay not to have all the answers, but it’s not okay to avoid the elephant in the room. The uncertainty of COVID has resulted in an abundance of missing answers to questions. But the important thing is to be transparent, clear and direct as often as possible.
No amount of corporate talk and lofty language can hide a crisis. If you don’t know, say so. Say it directly and clearly and commit to finding the answer and communicating it immediately. Faced with a crisis, it is better to err on the side of communication than not enough.
For me, honesty and transparency go hand in hand. When used effectively, they build trust, and ultimately, that trust makes it easier for everyone involved to navigate through a crisis or issue in a positive way.
It is said that a heightened state of adrenaline makes you stronger. If so, communications and PR teams around the world are flexing their muscles for the next challenge. Go on. We have this.