The 5 ‘Ts’ of crisis communication: how to tackle and learn from crises

Transparency, timeliness, trust, tenacity, and togetherness are key values during times of crisis. Here are 10 tips for organisations to better cope with and communicate during times of crisis like coronavirus.

As a crisis of global proportions engulfs us, it is important for individuals, organisations, and nations to come up with appropriate resilience approaches, which include communications and outreach.

In our own way, YourStory has responded to the COVID-19 crisis by setting up the Resource Centre for Startups and SMBs. It provides expert advice, business tips, workflow suggestions, and updates on dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

In this column, we present 10 tips for organisations to understand the crisis landscape, prepare internal teams and messaging strategy, and engage with a range of stakeholders. They are drawn from our own experience, and a wealth of online resources on crisis management.

1. Anatomy of a crisis

Crises are of different causes, dimensions, and scope, and it helps to begin by researching and mapping out the landscape of crisis. Some are internally caused (eg. product defect), others are external in nature (eg. infections from overseas). Some have domestic impact, others are global in footprint.

Some crises affect specific communities, others target the public at large. Each of these dimensions will define the information landscape, crisis team composition, and communication plans.

2. Mapping the information landscape

Unfortunately, in addition to breaking news at a time of crisis, there can be an alarming volume of fake news, misinformation, hate speech, and unsubstantiated rumours. Crisis analysis begins by separating out authoritative sources from dubious items. Local, national, and international authorities should be the primary source of key information.

Principles of knowledge management help classify content into data, information, and knowledge. With news breaking all the time, it is important to update responsive guidelines and procedures to keep them accurate and relevant.

Design of information plays an important role via visualisation of scenarios in an understandable manner to a wide range of audiences. This can include graphic design, interactive charts, and animated sequences.

3. Understanding the media

Every organisation should be in charge of its own digital information presence, and also learn how to engage with the media. Major traditional media generally have influence and authority, but have also been known to make errors and reveal underlying biases; hence “media literacy” is an important competence.

Social media are a rich platform for the “people’s voice” and also another major channel for traditional media. Social media monitoring and outreach call for understanding of the different “personalities” and cycles of social media types.

4. The crisis communication team

Though plans may continually change, it is important to have a crisis communication team in place to manage and plan messaging, online resources, and other activities. The organisational leader and spokespersons should be the core of this team, but organisation-wide support and inputs are also needed.

Communication to internal and external stakeholders should be at regular intervals (eg. every morning or evening), along with additional emergency announcements as relevant. Sensing, sensemaking, and articulation should be carried out in a systematic manner.

Communication channels for strategic communication should be prioritised. Eventually, the aim should be to expand from responsive communication to proactive engagement.

5. Values and qualities: The ‘Five Ts’

Crisis communication in terms of messaging and archived resources should have the following core qualities and values, captured in the ‘Five Ts’ – transparency, timeliness, trust, tenacity, and togetherness.

Transparency is key in crisis communication; data should not be fudged, manipulated, or hidden. Timeliness is important in an era when news is breaking at all hours, from all over the world.

Trust must be cultivated among internal and external stakeholders, otherwise the organisation may not command the desired influence, authority, or decisions. Tenacity is also called for; some crises may drag on for months or even years, and the toughness required for the long haul must be clearly communicated.

Togetherness is about teamwork and community. Everyone has the potential to be a leader, and everyone’s opinion and action counts. In an always-on interconnected world, only through collaboration and co-creation across the board can responses be effective at scale.

6. Understanding audience concerns

High-intensity crises affect society at multiple levels, particularly in an era of globalised work and migration. In addition to concerns of citizens and families, organisational employees and consumers need to be factored in.

Travelers, tourists, and expats get suddenly caught in the rising tide of a crisis, and everything from work to social life gets upended. Crisis communication must speak to their needs, as well as of vulnerable groups like seniors and children.

7. Media engagement

For key announcements and even for regular communication, organisations must understand how to engage with the media. This can range from physical/virtual press conferences to group/individual interviews.

Helplines should be well staffed to give accurate and timely responses to the media and to the public, and online helpdesks should be informative, easily searchable, and accurate. Websites and social media channels should cultivate the right kind of authoritative and trustworthy persona.

8. Communicating with the broader ecosystem

Crisis communication inputs and outreach must include key elements of the broader ecosystem, such as the health, retail, hospitality, and travel sectors. Digital work, life, and health should be covered in crisis communication.

Civil society and religious organisations should be engaged for effectively communicating key messages. Celebrities can also be harnessed for getting buy-in from fans and broader communities.

Messaging should appeal to higher emotions of love and kindness, and not baser ones of hate and cruelty. There should be a blend of practical and philosophical, informational and inspirational. Messages sent out must be regularly assessed for impact, and modified in future as necessary.

9. Storytelling

Crisis communication calls for calmness, seriousness, simplicity, and empathy. In addition to data points and scientific research, they should showcase exemplary stories of compliance, innovation and excellence (as well as illustrations of how not to do certain things).

Testimonials and “hero” stories evoke empathy, respect, and resonance. Humour and art are important elements here, but care and contextualisation should be adopted to avoid offending people. Errors and mistakes should be eliminated via thorough verification, proof-reading, and testing, so as to avoid damage to reputation and credibility.

10. Digital transformation

One of the larger impacts of the current COVID-19 crisis is the acceleration of digital transformation in companies, which impacts everything from crisis communication to regular workflow.

On a scale of 1 to 10, organisations should be assessing the accuracy and value of their customer data, marketing collaterals, sales campaigns, website, and social media channels. This extends to internal workflow as well as interactions with business partners and investors.

From this initial baseline, maturity curves and success factors should be drawn up for improving digital performance in the long run. This is the future of work, and has already arrived in the present.

The bigger picture

Humanity (and indeed, all species) has faced and weathered a range of crises throughout history. In addition to operational impact, the larger financial and economic fallout will take time to assess, and we must brace for worst and best case scenarios.

Payroll, legal issues, and compliance are other issues that organisations need to tackle head-on, along with policy and regulatory interventions from government. The crisis of today is the preparatory ground for the crisis of tomorrow, and organisations must have effective knowledge management practices, and cultures to chronicle key lessons and practices.

In sum, despite immediate hardships, a crisis is a messenger, and should be framed as an opportunity for reflection and reinvention. See YourStory’s quotes compilation for more perspective and inspiration in this regard: Reflection, reframing, resilience – 60 quotes on coping with a crisis.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)