Communicating in a Crisis
By Wes Bleed
Crisis communications is typically the province of public relations professionals, otherwise known as spin doctors, who take a bad news story that threatens the reputation of an organization or individual and somehow neutralize it, if not turn it into a positive narrative. It’s generally seen as a necessary evil, especially in today’s fast-moving digital world. Recently, however, crisis communications has been redefined. It now involves a whole new set of challenges as businesses, large and small, have had to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. As a metaphor for the very crisis itself, the need for effective, truthful and timely information has increased virally throughout the spring of 2020. It’s a crisis of no one’s doing and yet, everyone has had to step up and adapt their messaging and marketing in ways unlike anything most of us have ever seen.
That doesn’t mean any and all communication are created equal. There are some strategies and tactics that are more effective and more positive than others. Doug Ramer, MWS, CWR, Human Resources Director at Martin Water Conditioning in Myerstown, PA, says it starts with reassuring the customer. “We’re either going to do something or say something to remove doubts and fears,” Ramer said during a recent Dealer Section meeting of the Water Quality Association. Explain the steps and precautions your company is taking to keep employees and customers safe, he argued.
Ramer recounted how during the coronavirus pandemic, one customer was concerned about having a water treatment professional come into their home. “My husband has COPD and a heart condition—I need you to take the utmost care when you come,” Ramer recalled the woman saying. And so, the very words one uses to respond are critical. “Replace ‘we’ll try’ with ‘we will,’” he said. Ramer said it’s also important to reassure employees. “Communicate, communicate and communicate,” he said. Increase your frequency of communication, look for new and better ways to communicate and speak to their fears. “Right now, is not a time to talk about you. It’s a time to listen.”
Fear is at the heart of many questions these days: fear of contracting the coronavirus, fear of losing one’s job, fear of what might happen to loved ones and fear of how long the ordeal will last. The ability to address those fears will go a long way to fostering confidence with customers, clients and the general public. WQA provided members with a checklist of important recommendations to follow during the crisis, everything from following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to asking the customer, especially the elderly, if there are any other needs for which they can offer assistance.
While social media and email marketing have been effective means of reaching out to customers during the crisis, Amanda Crangle with Lamplight Digital Media in southwest Colorado says it’s also important to update your website with information about the safe solutions you offer. “Some clients are offering online consultations through Zoom or other platforms,” Crangle said during an interview on the WQA podcast, WQA Radio. “They can still have a face-to-face conversation with folks but don’t have to necessarily be in their homes.” For Crangle, providing real value is the key, whether that’s through salt delivery service for those who don’t want to go to the store or offering bottled water delivery. She says overall her clients are seeing an uptick in web-form submissions and phone calls from customers during the crisis.
‘Data Dale’ Fihaber with the Dataman Group in Boca Raton, FL, says it’s crucial to keep messaging at a higher level and not just focus on making a sale. “We have to tell (the customer) up front that we understand, we’re all in the same place and we do everything we can to keep them safe,” Filhaber said during an interview on WQA Radio. After the crisis has ended, Filhaber suggests sending a letter to current and past customers and let them know the steps you’ve taken and new measures you’ve put in place that will address ongoing concerns that customers will invariably have for some time to come. With uncertainty about how long the crisis will last, it’s tempting to cut your marketing budget. Filhaber says resist the temptation. “Companies that market come back nine times faster than companies that don’t,” she explained.
Filhaber and Crangle both recommend taking advantage of any extra time during the crisis to work on your marketing plan to prepare for the pickup of business activity likely to occur after the crisis. “When that faucet gets turned back on, there are going to be so many messages out there, every dealer is going to have to break through the clutter so that they can get their message to the people they want to reach,” Filhaber said. Crangle believes this is the time to position your company as the local water quality expert and someone who’s invested in the community. “We can take an opportunity to challenge our current systems, and test what’s working, what’s not, and hopefully come up with some great ideas to continue to provide value in new ways in the future.”
Finally, remember to say thank you for the help others have provided to you and for the ongoing faith customers have expressed in you during this crisis. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it will build trust and goodwill that you’ll need when the next crisis hits.
About the author
Wes Bleed is Marketing and Communications Director at the Water Quality Association. He joined WQA in 2016, after decades of experience in broadcasting, media relations, crisis communications and media training. Bleed hosts WQA Radio (the association’s weekly podcast) and oversees all video and digital communications at WQA.