Comms 101: Cold Coffee and Critical Communications During a Crisis

Updated: May 9, 2024 | Published Mar 30, 2020

Over the past two weeks, my days are minimum 12 hours and a constant cup of lukewarm (in the spirit of transparency, I’ll drink it cold) coffee.

While your employees are tuned into press conferences, PSAs and expert opinions on social and news channels, those of us in communications are reinventing plans on the fly.

We are moving quickly to make sure our workforce understands the impacts on our operation. We’re also building new processes for crisis communications each day and pushing them to the wider team.

First things first: there isn’t an out of the box plan for crisis communications.

I’m sure we all agree that right now, companies need to put their people first,

An example (rooted in reality) used by SHRM to demonstrate crisis communication uses an earthquake where a fabricated company has to locate all of their employees quickly. Natural disasters can throw even the most docile community into panic. The company in this example took over a week to learn if all staff were safe and accounted for.

In normal times, I might say that this example is on the more drastic end, but this isn’t normal times. This example shows how speed, efficacy and reach are all so important for critical internal communications during times of heightened worry.

All that to say, while I’m feeling a personal panic to be all things to all people, I recognize that we also need to take a deep breath to think strategically, then tackle the project tasks and give ourselves a little slack.

This is a once in a lifetime event and despite what anyone tells you, there isn’t an out of the box solution to a response  – so here’s our take on where to start with crisis communications.

Step 1: Ensure comms can reach your entire audience.

We had a company contact us early last week to share that a portion of their workforce was more or less unreachable when conducting remote work, another firm uses temporary employees that communicate on any day via text through their team lead.

Those of us that operate in an office environment have to remind ourselves that not everyone is tethered by email. Do you have teams that are front-line and disconnected?


Internal comms face obstacles at every turn, it seems. We need to communicate critical messages, protocols and still account for feedback and two-way communication, all using often outdated employee databases and email distribution lists.

Let’s start by evaluating our reach. Can you answer all of these questions with ‘yes’?

    • Do we have a method to reach every employee, even if it’s by their team lead?
    • Do we have a method for two-way communications for every employee? 
    • Can we reach every employee directly?
    • Can we reach every employee directly on their mobile device?
    • Does every employee know where to go for the latest updates?

Yes, each question is more difficult than the last. We’re not accustomed to times like this, but it is absolutely necessary to reach everyone directly for this level of crisis communication.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The first challenge is to understand these gaps in audience reach and establish communication channels.

Step 2: Prepare a coordinated, targeted response

Waiting for employees to come to you, as SHRM’s experts note, is time wasted that can’t usually be spent.

Instead, have a system set up that gets them the information they need. It’s a bonus when this same solution enables resource sharing, targeted communications and more.

In order to avoid confusion and misinformation, technology like an employee app can hit all of the pain points and keep the communication focused, giving leaders a channel to be heard on and employees a place to find everything they need quickly and clearly.

Here are some of the key things a solution like this can offer for critical messaging:

    • A channel for all staff, available 24/7, that is searchable and can be sorted by tags. This becomes channel becomes a single, designated feed for teams to access updates.
    • Accessible via mobile or desktop. This is more important in 2020 than any other time in history, our workforce needs our message to be on their phones and laptops.
    • Training/LMS tools to implement new processes. If you haven’t already updated training processes, this is as good a time as any to start. Implementing micro-learning for new processes using video and course tracking ensures the training is ‘read and received’.
    • Resource management and intranet functionalities.  Information is changing daily. Today’s protocols are different than a week ago. To avoid confusion, have a single source for documents or any asset that can needs to be referenced easily. Think beyond hand-washing notices. Employees need EI information, health protocol sheets, etc. so have it there from the start for everyone on the front-line.
    • Targeted communications narrowed down by role, location and more. There are so many instances where this is crucial, for instance, operating procedures vary state-by-state. We have some manufacturing clients that have sites open where others are considered non-essential.  Aside from the basics though, this is about keeping the communication relative to the audience – tone, message and media.
    • Feedback tools and surveying to stay on top of sentiment and understanding. Understanding sentiment will become even more vital as our situation progresses. There are other applications for a feedback loop of course, but the opportunity for employee experience is still important even when we’re dealing with crisis.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Your messaging mix should include formal messages, direct messages, training, social messages and a feedback loop, all as relative as possible to the audience. Your entire communication plan doesn’t have to be distributed via an employee app, but it does help to have a central hub for your company’s communication.

Step 3: Avoid panic and confusion from the get-go

I read an article last week (that I couldn’t find, so my apologies for not referencing) that criticized early political response for telling white lies to protect positioning, and are now impossible to overcome. I won’t get into the weeds with examples, but we have all glossed over realities in the past, and it won’t serve any of us well right now.

Transparency is the golden rule for me.

Our employees need to trust what we’re saying today so that we can reinforce a consistent message tomorrow.

A couple of ideas that are working for our customers:

    • Let your leader shine – taking the cue from our corporate messages, I’ve seen great examples of CEOs, Managers and Team Leaders at the forefront with a coordinated message of calm support.
    • Video, video, video – relaxing the brand rules are okay, it shows we are human. Employee stories and video conversations are engaging, seeing people helps reinforce that your people are in this together.
    • Graphs and charts – illustrating key facts and processes might take a little longer, but really help to make key details accessible to all.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Aim for a calm, coordinated response that relies on simple messaging that is reinforced with fact. No one wants to panic and leaders need to be the calming, confident voice that this situation is serious but temporary.

For more information, this is an excellent guide on critical communications:

I’ll be the first to say that I’m like you: handling this response to the best of my ability. When I don’t have the answers, I go looking for expert opinions to guide me.

If you have the time, I found this resource from Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication. It has insight to help understand the psychology of a crisis. Directly from the guide, it explains the following:

    • “During crisis, we simplify messages. Under intense stress and possible information overload, we tend to miss the nuances.”
    • “Crisis communication sometimes requires asking people to do something that seems counterintuitive, such as evacuating even when the weather looks calm. We tend to exploit any conflicting or unclear messages about a subject by interpreting it as consistent with existing beliefs.”
      • ie: We might tell ourselves, “I believe that my house is a safe place.”
    • “During crisis, we want messages confirmed before taking action”
      • ie: In cases where evacuation is recommended, we tend to watch to see if our neighbours are evacuating before we make our decision
    • “During a crisis, the speed of a response can be an important factor in reducing harm.”

I’ll leave you to get back to your planning and execution while I go nurse a cold coffee and consider what comes next. As we move from reaction to normalization, I’m starting to plan our approach beyond this week.

Yes, we’re in crisis now but we can’t stay in reaction mode forever. 

Teri Maltais
Teri Maltais

Specializing in digital marketing programs for industrial and commercial technology solutions.

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