By Roni Davis:
As businesses move past the winter 2021-22 surge and into a (hopefully) safer spring, they should consider a few things when it comes to developing effective communication skills:
- They will have undoubtedly received many messages from local, state, federal, and private sector health authorities, as well as their employees, on how best to return to some state of normalcy this summer.
- By now, businesses should be aware of the limitations of generalized, top-down messaging and how it can sometimes fail to address the granular needs at their local level.
- Conversely, messaging from local authorities might not adequately address the health and security concerns facing their business and employees.
- Businesses know from the chaos and tumult of the past two years just how vital effective communication is to the healthy functioning of their employees’ wellbeing and the vital connection between a business and its local community.
In sum, the past few years have been a trial by fire for developing effective communication skills. Successful companies were able to effectively triage the important information—separating it from less relevant information and the abundance of misinformation and disinformation—and disseminate it frequently, clearly, and concisely across multiple channels.
This is the essence of effective crisis messaging, and that is what we will explore in this article. By the end, readers will have a slew of solid ideas for boosting the efficacy of their crisis communication strategies.
Tips for Effectively Triaging Important Information
Perhaps the most challenging task is taking the abundance of information—the statistics, news, viral social media, misinformation, and disinformation—and distilling from it a clear view of what’s going on. Essentially, there is way too much noise out there, and it’s management’s responsibility to construct their messaging from trusted, reliable—and relevant—sources.
That’s why the first question businesses need to ask themselves when devising a crisis communication strategy is:
What’s the Most Relevant Information for Your Employees?
What is the information that employees absolutely must know to conduct their work safely and effectively? Businesses that keep this question at the forefront of their decision-making process
Think of a funnel. At the top is the national-level COVID news, content, and information. Further down is the state-level COVID information. Further down from there is local COVID information. And, after that sit’s a business’s COVID information policy, which makes up the end of the funnel.
A business’s policy should certainly consider national guidance when devising its crisis communication strategy, but national guidance shouldn’t supersede the local situation on the ground.
Outside of work, employees will be consuming COVID-related content at all levels of the funnel, but it’s crucial that businesses do not stray from the funnel when choosing which information is relevant. This is especially important when management teams encounter misinformation and disinformation.
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
It’s also important for businesses to understand the difference between misinformation and disinformation—as there is a surplus of both to go around in today’s socio-political, media-driven climate.
Misinformation is incomplete information presented as the full picture or false information presented as true. Spreading it isn’t always intentional and nefarious; however, when its spread is deliberate and motivated by social, political, or economic deception, it is considered disinformation.
Use Relevant Information to Determine Policy Changes
Let’s use the example of masking at the office. In this scenario, management is trying to determine when they can forgo their masking policy for in-office workers. In this scenario, there is no local mandate for masking indoors, but it was company policy to wear masks.
Here is some information—some actual recent news—that management should consider while searching for the best way to communicate a policy change (in no particular order of importance):
- The CDC recently issued guidance that stated the majority of Americans (70%) no longer need to wear masks in public because they live in areas where the caseload is low.
- Let’s say this business is located in southern New Jersey. Management should weigh the local case levels as the highest priority when determining policy—not national and not state.
- What are other businesses in the industry doing? What metrics are they using to determine changes to their own masking policies?
- What are their employees’ concerns?
- What are customers’ concerns?
Develop Clear and Concise Messaging
When it comes time to develop the actual message, it is critical that the information is presented clearly and concisely, free of filler, and based on current data. When information is missing or the complete picture is unknown, say exactly that.
And the messaging must come from the top.
Guidance Must Come From Business Leadership
Many business owners might be tempted to defer to the media or the government when presenting information to their employees, but research makes it clear that the advice must come from business leadership. As it turns out, employees are more likely to trust their employer’s advice and guidance than guidance issued by the government or through the media.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer—a research poll designed to gauge employee trust of COVID guidances from the government, from media, and a person’s employer—68% of employees trust their employer, 58% trusted the government, and 51% trusted the media
Emphasize Positives Over Negatives – Do’s are More Effective Than Don’ts
Employees respond better to positive messaging rather than negative messaging. They are more likely to trust information when presented with actionable advice than unactionable advice.
That’s why when formulating a messaging strategy, management must tell people what to do—not what not to do! For Example:
- “Wash your hands for twenty seconds” is more effective than “don’t forget to wash your hands.”
- “Stay six feet apart from others” is more effective than “don’t crowd together in the office.”
Frequency Matters: Update Your Employees Frequently
In a health crisis, the more a message is heard, the more likely employees will remember it. According to one study, the optimal number of repeats for a message to be remembered during a health crisis is between 9 and 21 times. That is a big range, and businesses should be on the upper rather than the lower end.
Use Collective Experience to Guide Your Your Business’s Crisis Communication Policy
Over the last few years, the most successful businesses were able to take the abundance of fear, anxiety, misinformation, and uncertainty and follow a thread of truth out of the mess. With this thread of truth, they filtered out the irrelevant information, crafted concise and clear messaging, and disseminated it frequently.
This is the essence of effective crisis communication for businesses.