Crisis Communication in the Age of Hot Takes


There’s no communication playbook for the current public health emergency. Nobody alive has ever faced this particular communication challenge, let alone in the context of worldwide, always-on keyboard commentary.

But there are some consistent principles.

Make it about them

It may be a matter of great professional pride that your IT team has managed to scale up access to the VPN and add remote back-up functionality to your EOS on such short notice, but are these details your customers and vendors actually need right now? Do a quick scan of your inbox folder. How many COVID-19 messages have you gotten in the last week? Or, the last 24 hours, even? How many did you read from beginning to end? Just like we learned to ignore irrelevant online ads, we’ve all trained ourselves to skip over the corporate messages that don’t have meaning or value for us, personally. Skip to the part in your communication where you get to “What This Means to You.” Consider opening with that. And, if your compliance people will go along, consider closing with it, too.

Be human

We’re communicating in tense times about serious issues. It’s even more tempting than usual to rely on corporate-speak. Utilizing one’s multisyllabic vocabulary when your smaller words will do is not just less clear, it’s exhausting. There’s no reason your news release, customer email, vendor letter or social media post should sound like it was written by a committee of insecure law school applicants. You’re talking to people.

Be compassionate

Speaking of talking to people, many of them are confused and some are downright scared. The changes you’re announcing or the new process your organization is following might mean anything from a reassurance or an inconvenience to a genuine problem for your audience. Remember, this is about them, so take responsibility for that. To whatever extent you can control, be flexible in individual cases, but mostly, admit that this is an issue and that the people behind your brand are trying their best to minimize the disruption to the people in front of you.

Stay in your lane

You’re a smart person. You know lots of things about lots of things. But unless you actually are an epidemiologist or a public health expert, don’t sound like you think you are one. Reminding customers and visitors that your organization is following social distancing procedures is fine. But if you want to share best practices, preventative measures or treatment protocols with your employees or outside audiences, direct them to actual experts in those fields. It’s fine if you want to hand out the local health department’s flier or share a link to the CDC website, but shoehorning health tips and other technical information about the wider situation just distracts from what you set out to communicate in the first place. It also risks damaging the credibility of your brand.



This post is part of a series on marketing during and after the pandemic. To read the others, follow this link.