The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role that crisis communications plays in the corporate world. Whether it’s informing stakeholders of outbreaks at factories or coming layoffs, companies that get their communications right build a reservoir of trust that may be drawn from in the days ahead. “For companies in crisis, silence is deadly,” says Michael W. Robinson, chairman and CEO of Montgomery Strategies Group, a Washington, DC–based strategic communications and marketing firm. I reached out to Robinson to discuss how companies should think about crisis communications during the pandemic.
with the chairman and
CEO of Montgomery Strategies Group, Michael W. Robinson
You’ve observed a host of corporate crises in your career, and worked with many companies on their internal and external communication responses. How, if at all, is the pandemic crisis different from the others from a corporate communications perspective?
One of the basic tenets of crisis communications is “if you can’t end a situation satisfactorily, do all you can to end it quickly.” The trouble is, with this pandemic, the prospect for an end date is still so remote that this framework just doesn’t work any longer. So, with that in mind, companies, irrespective of their size or whether they are public or private, need to adopt a new model—one that’s more strategic and takes the long view.
To effectively quell the anxiety that all stakeholders feel today, organizations will be well served to communicate early and often. Indeed, the act of communication is, in and of itself, an important commitment to transparency that sets the right tone. It’s helpful to remember that in the absence of facts, rumor and innuendo will fill the vacuum, which is almost never helpful to companies. Therefore, a steady diet of communications—even if they are largely about process-related matters—is the key to success.
How has effective messaging changed as the crisis has progressed?
In many ways, the evolution of corporate messaging over the past five to six months has paralleled the increased scientific and medical understanding of the COVID-19 virus itself. At the outset, companies tended to tiptoe through their messaging and, wherever possible, avoid the tough questions, hoping that the crisis would abate. And that worked, for a short time. Next, came an emotional response that summoned a more positive tone and a collective commitment to work together to overcome the challenges at hand. That has been followed by a much more realistic messaging architecture that underscores the slow and steady work that will need to be accomplished in the long march that’s ahead. Companies are still optimistic, but not overly so.
Fundamental best practices for crisis communications
Ideally, in the event of a crisis, a company would access its crisis communications playbook, turn to the appropriate section, and execute the plan outlined therein. Sadly, that occurs infrequently at best. Instead, most organizations begin behind the eight ball and struggle to play catch up.
Strategically, it’s often helpful to see a crisis situation through the villain-victim-vindicator prism. In this construct, the company has the opportunity—if it moves quickly—to avoid being positioned as the bad actor, and instead be seen as working hard to lead the organization and solve the underlying problems at hand.
Tactically, the approach to successfully managing crisis communications includes a number of steps:
•Establish a select team of senior managers drawn from across the enterprise who are empowered to act decisively on the company’s behalf to manage the crisis. We often refer to this group as the CAT—Crisis Action Team.
•Create workable protocols to ensure that the necessary information flows up to the CAT and that its decisions are then executed with dispatch.
•Assess the organization’s vulnerabilities and map response steps, along with all appropriate materials, to each one.
•Monitor traditional and social media in real time and correct all errors immediately, lest they become accepted as fact and repeated.
•Look horizontally inside the company to make sure that otherwise innocuous commentary, events, and regulatory filings are not taken out of context. For example, the risks section of a company’s 10-Q, which is authored by the legal team, often contains the widest possible articulation of potential risks to the company, as it should. That said, in the context of a crisis situation, that information can easily be mischaracterized and quickly become a distraction.
Could you point to a company or companies that have done well during the pandemic from where you sit? What did they do that sets them apart?
I was particularly impressed with Marriott’s initial response to the pandemic. Clearly, its business was among the hardest hit, especially during what amounted to a national quarantine. It recognized the obvious and didn’t pretend it wasn’t an issue. Instead, it ran to the crisis and talked specifically about its severe impact on employees at its hotels around the world. The company demonstrated leadership with a pledge by CEO Arne Sorenson and Board Chairman Bill Marriott that they would be giving up their salaries for a period of time, that the company’s executive team would take a 50 percent salary cut, and that two-thirds of its 4,000 corporate employees at the company’s Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters would be furloughed (so that they could retain their benefits, including healthcare).
Next, they proactively created the Marriott Cleanliness Council, a group of in-house and outside experts in food and water safety, hygiene and infection prevention, and hotel operations to develop a new generation of global hospitality cleanliness standards, norms, and behaviors.
Of course, all corporate promises need to be kept—in actuality as well as in perception. Those who make big promises and then use some sleight of hand to retain their compensation later will be held accountable. It is clear that the media, as well as other key stakeholders, are keeping track of those who overpromise and underdeliver—and the consequences are likely to be severe.
You probably have seen examples of less effective company responses. What were their weaknesses?
Generally speaking, companies that don’t embrace a crisis to actively articulate their messages are castigated for being out of touch and slow to respond. No organization will have all the facts it would like to in any crisis situation, but that is no reason not to communicate. In the case of a data breach, for instance, while it may be impossible to know the scope of the intrusion at the outset, companies can—and should—talk about the resources they are deploying to help their customers, the external cyber consultants they’ve engaged, coordination efforts with law enforcement, offers of credit monitoring and identity theft protection, and similar initiatives that are completely within their control.
Could you distinguish between how companies should communicate with customers, suppliers, and other external stakeholders versus the internal audience—that is, employees—in the pandemic?
Until recently, companies worked hard to tailor their communications for each of their stakeholders, telling investors one thing and customizing information differently for the media in the sincere belief that they were doing the right thing. Today—when it’s common for employees to live-tweet from an all-hands meeting—it’s clear that the silos have been torn down permanently. And that’s a good thing. There is no question that some information—say, the continuation of benefits for furloughed employees—will be of greater interest to some stakeholders versus others, but that doesn’t mean that nobody else will care. Certainly with the growing focus on environmental, social, and corporate governance issues and investing, how a company in crisis treats its employees could, in turn, have a positive impact on its long-term reputation and postcrisis recruitment, among other things.
In 2020, it’s a foregone conclusion that what you share with one stakeholder will be shared with all of them—so approach it that way. Ensure that messages are reinforcing—that they accurately depict the company’s senior management as in charge of the crisis and making decisions in the best interests of the widest possible group of stakeholders.
Does traditional thought leadership have a role to play in crisis communications, especially in the pandemic situation?
Absolutely. In fact, it’s more important than ever. The last thing any organization wants is to be defined to new audiences
by a stumble. Instead, companies that have invested the time and effort to build a sturdy reputation are far better positioned to withstand potential criticism, deserved or not. Think of it this way: one of the goals of thought leadership is to create a moment of pause for people so that when they hear about
or read about an organization in crisis, they will say to themselves, “that’s not the company that I know.” The continuation of thought leadership also sends an important foundational message that the company, and especially its leadership team, is not paralyzed and remains focused on running the business and driving it forward.
Michael W. Robinson