Lisa Cruz owns Red Shoes Inc., a marketing and PR agency known for its crisis communication expertise.
CEOs of food supply chain companies that have not experienced direct (or indirect) impact due to COVID-19 should consider themselves fortunate. As seen over the past few weeks, the new coronavirus has negatively impacted the food and beverage industry in many different ways at all levels of the supply chain. Meatpacking facilities have closed due to employees testing positive for COVID-19, farmers have dumped food and raw product due to high supply and lower demand, and grocery stores face staffing shortages due to frontline workers falling ill.
For those CEOs who feel prepared and have an operational crisis plan that has been tested, it is time now to take that preparedness to the next level and develop a crisis communication plan.
Here are a few lessons in crisis leadership to take into consideration:
Plan now: Those who have not brought up the importance of creating a crisis communication plan during this time are probably hesitant due to lack of time and resources. Make the time now. The question businesses need to ask is what kind of time and resources they will spend on a crisis if they don’t at least have a head start on building out a communication plan.
Companies can spend three times the amount of time and energy reacting in the middle of the crisis than they would if they prepared a communication plan ahead of time. And remember this: The absolute best time to plan is before a crisis hits, when leadership has a clear head. Waiting until a crisis is not the time to lead a team as you attempt to write coherent messaging, assemble contact lists, find login information and passwords for communication channels and more, all while under pressure.
Timely communications: When a crisis occurs, customers and other target audiences expect companies to communicate often and accurately, especially now. They need and want reassurances that their suppliers are taking all of the correct steps to mitigate risks to their customers, employees and others. All the trust built over the years through hard earned relationship building can be lost in the blink of an eye if companies are not communicating often enough.
Last but not least, companies cannot forget their internal team of employees. This audience is just as important to communicate with during a time of crisis. The entire team, especially those on the front lines, are an integral part of your company’s overall response. By delivering timely and thoughtful communications to them, they, in turn, will provide invaluable support for customers and the community.
Words matter: The words used to deliver news about plant employees testing positive for COVID-19 speaks volumes. When developing communications, it’s important to read the words out loud and seek a second opinion on all communications. Companies should consider all possible interpretations of the words chosen to deliver the message. The words should be straight to the point and deliver the message in a matter-of-fact way while still showing empathy and honesty. The message should also provide reassurance to customers and provide a way for them to contact the company and its leadership directly with any further questions.
Actions matter: One of the first things employees will do in a crisis is look to their leaders to see their emotional and physical responses. As an employee, it can be very unsettling to see the CEO or president of a company angry, panicked, disheveled or confused.
In a crisis, non-verbal actions and facial expressions speak volumes. Leaders of the company need to appear calm to reassure employees they are making the best decisions possible with a clear head. Leadership behavior influences employee behavior.
Be on a fact-finding mission with all details: Communicating frequently doesn’t mean spreading misinformation. To be a trusted source of information during a crisis (as businesses should be), it needs to check, double-check and verify everything. Good leaders will question all they hear and make sure they are dealing with accurate information or seek counsel from professionals trained to interpret the information such as lawyers, HR consultants, government agencies, etc. The worst thing a business can do is pour gas on the fire by conveying misinformation, leaving them with another mess to clean up. Companies need to get messaging and facts right the first time, and if they do get something wrong, it needs to be fixed as soon as possible with the correct information.
Be proactive to not exasperate the situation: If the media starts calling, it’s probably time (it may even be considered late) to deliver succinct, fact-based information to them. The media should hear the story directly from the company versus others not directly involved. The posture of owning the situation upfront also speaks volumes to the brand trust the company has built. Yes, it takes time to respond to media, but the goal is if a company has a communication plan in place and are proactively delivering timely updates, the pressure is lessened over the long-term.
This is also a good time to utilize a press conference instead of conducting separate interviews. This allows companies to deliver their message to the media at one time. Even with social distancing recommendations, a press conference held online via a video conference can be an extremely efficient way to work with the media.
Rely on mission, vision and values: Now is the time to remind employees and customers how the company relies on its mission, vision and values. These cornerstones of the company serve as the foundation to carry the team forward and it is even more important to refocus on these during a time of crisis. The mission, vision and values also serve as a reminder for CEOs and leadership when they are making decisions during a crisis. When the answers aren’t quite clear, lean on the mission, vision and values to serve as a filter for decision making and messaging.
Remember, leadership during a crisis is a test of your leadership skills. Stay focused, stay calm and communicate wisely.