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Small business guide to crisis communications

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Uncertainty in any guise isn’t good for business, especially if you’re small.

It can demotivate employees, make customers anxious, and unsettle investors. And in an age where information is rapidly disseminated unchecked, uncertainty can take hold quickly. At no time is this more keenly felt than during a crisis.

When the proverbial poop hits the fan, it can be difficult to know what to do next because stress absorbs the mental energy that we need to problem solve. That’s why you need to have a plan – developed when you were thinking clearly – to fall back on.

Perhaps the most important element of that pre-emptive thinking is your crisis communications plan. Used effectively, it can quell uncertainty before it causes any damage to your business.

The first step is to decide who you’ll need to communicate with in a crisis.

1. Compile an enriched contact list

You cannot afford to be scratching around for email addresses or phone numbers in the throes of a crisis.

Being able to communicate at speed is vital because whatever’s gone wrong, you want your stakeholders to hear it from you first. That way, you control the narrative and limit the permeation of uncertainty.

To achieve this, you’ll need to compile a contact list you can leverage quickly in a crisis. Be sure you remain POPIA compliant as you do so. Segment your list into the following cohorts:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Partners
  • Investors
  • Media

It’s important to realise that everyone has different preferences when it comes to communication. Email might work for some, but others may prefer WhatsApp or their social media feeds.

For your key stakeholders, it would be useful to know their preferred method of communication so that when crisis hits and you want to get a message to them, you know the fastest route. As a small business, this shouldn’t be a particularly onerous task. Of course, what you say to each of these cohorts will differ, too.

2. Plan your messaging

Any crisis communication worth its salt will answer four important questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. How will it affect me?
  4. When will the crisis be rectified?

Each question will need to be answered slightly differently depending on which stakeholder you are addressing. An employee might want to know their job is safe; a customer that their order will still be delivered. While the detail you include is important, how you say it is arguably more so.

In a crisis, it’s natural to enter defence mode because it feels like we’re under attack. But this is the worst posture we could assume. Businesses that expend energy defending themselves, rather than showing sympathy and reassuring their stakeholders, almost always come to regret it.

While it’s not possible to write fully-formed crisis communications in advance – since you don’t know what you might have to deal with – you can decide on the impression you’d want to make on your stakeholders in times of distress. Largely, that will come down to the tone and style of your communication, which you can decide on in advance.

A rule of thumb is to put yourself in the shoes of the people receiving your communications. Ask yourself how they might feel and what language might ease their concerns.

If you think hard about their needs and fears before pushing send or making a statement, your messaging will land better. And if they can feel that you are genuinely remorseful or concerned, you’ll be surprised how much forgiveness and support might be afforded to you during a crisis. Most often, that sincerity is best communicated in person.

3. Know who’s going to do the talking

Not everyone is confident talking to a crowd. So, if an apology or admission needs to be made as a crisis breaks, your business needs to put its best foot forward. Deciding who will be your spokesperson in advance is important for two reasons:

  • That person can undergo media training to make sure they communicate effectively when/if a crisis hits.
  • By appointing a spokesperson, you remove any ambiguity around who is permitted to talk to stakeholders during a crisis.

Your chosen spokesperson will likely need support regarding the facts of the crisis, the timelines of remediation, and help with any written communication that needs to be disseminated. These responsibilities should also be allocated in advance to the appropriate individuals in your business.

Another important structure to put in place is how to escalate information internally. If an employee comes across something that looks like crisis material, that information needs to be taken to the right person quickly to avoid unnecessary damage.

4. Establish a social media presence

Many businesses avoid developing a social media footprint. But when it comes to managing a crisis, it’s hugely risky to be absent from these modern-age communication channels.

For one thing, a crisis can start on social media. A tweet full of loathing for your business has the potential to spread quickly; if you have no visibility of such activity, you won’t be able to respond timeously to interrupt the bad publicity. In this case, ignorance is definitely not bliss.

For another, a presence on social media can be used to connect with your important stakeholders. When a crisis hits and you need to get a message to them fast, there’s no more efficient conduit than these platforms. In other words, social media should be used to monitor for potential crises, as well as to inform stakeholders when one breaks.

Each crisis requires a certain amount of improvisation. But when it comes to the communication you’ll need to put out, there are structures you can put in place that will drastically reduce the extent of reputational damage, or even negate it altogether. The same old rule applies: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

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