Would you like a rapid rundown of all you need to know about using good communication to help your business recover from a crisis?
If so, read on for advice from University of Cambridge communications tutor, Director of media and public relations consultancy, Creative Warehouse, and former BBC News Correspondent Simon Hall…
A wise old saying has it that a problem shared is a problem halved. And that’s particularly the case when you’re dealing with a crisis, and its aftermath.
But here’s an important question –
What’s one of the most common errors of crisis recovery communications?
The answer is simple… not communicating at all.
I’m not being critical here. It’s perfectly understandable.
You’ve got your hands full with simply surviving, and your head’s pounding with everything you’re having to deal with, particularly in these unprecedented times.
Which means it’s easy to forget to communicate.
But if you come out and tell your customers, staff, investors and partners what you’re doing, in sharp, smart and straightforward terms…
You’ll be amazed at how much support you get, and how it can help your business.
So, what are the critical elements of crisis recovery communications?
What to say
Let me introduce you to a fine old friend, one who’s helped me through many a communications challenge. It’s called the Message House –
This is how important communications are often structured.
The roof of the house is your umbrella statement. This should be your most important message.
If people remember one thing from your blog, interview, social media post, video, or speech, this is it.
Imagine, for example, my company, Creative Warehouse, being badly disrupted by coronavirus, and myself, as Director, seriously ill (let me stress that, fortunately, neither is the case.)
What would I want my most important, or umbrella message to be, to help us recover from the crisis?
- We are very much open for business, with a service every bit as good as before.
Following that, what would my three core messages be?
- Our other 10 staff, with backgrounds ranging from Google, the Guardian, Times and Independent newspapers, and BBC and ITV, are well, and working as normal.
- Co-director, John Cary, who was Deputy Editor of BBC Radio Four’s flagship news and current affairs Today programme, is running the company in my absence.
- Projects including websites, media training, public relations, social media and design work are continuing, by video calls/meetings.
And as for supporting points –
- All customers, including Cambridge University, government departments, and private companies have been contacted and are keen to continue to work with us.
- A major re-design and editorial project for the University is almost complete, and on track to be delivered on time and budget.
- Our normal response time (1 hour maximum) remains to inquiries for support.
The critical thing to remember is to get the most important information in first.
People are busy and have limited attention spans. Hit them with your umbrella message straight away, then expand with your other points.
Look at how I started this blog. The important news, right up front, to grab your attention, followed by the other messages I wanted to get across.
Principles of your Communications
First of all, and I can’t stress enough how important this is…
- Be honest and open
If your company has been hit hard, and it may take a little longer than usual to assist your customers, then say so.
If you try to cover up you’ll only get caught out, and that will just alienate them and make them more likely to desert you.
People are generally understanding. Everyone knows how tough times have been lately.
Be open and honest, and you’ve got a much better chance of keeping your staff, customers and partners onside.
- Take ownership
Yes, everyone has been struggling in the Covid-19 crisis. But complaining isn’t going to help.
Deal with your problems, and show how you’re dealing with them, and you’ll earn respect and support.
Never forget to be human. Feelings are what drive us, and there’s nothing wrong with showing yours.
If staff have been ill, or you’ve had to lay workers off, express sympathy and understanding.
Show how you’re supporting them, and trying to make the situation better.
- Be helpful
A little public spiritedness goes a long way. For example, I’ve been publishing blogs and vlogs – like How to Appear on TV via a Laptop or Phone – to support the business community, and they’ve been very well received.
They demonstrate my values, and are positive for the reputation of both myself and Creative Warehouse.
- Regular updates
Don’t bombard your stakeholders with information. Only communicate if you’ve got something to say, or people will stop listening.
Update your website, and publish social media, blog posts, or videos, regularly.
But email only when necessary, or you risk becoming annoying and getting binned without a second thought.
Now we move on to some tricks to help ensure your communications don’t fall on deaf ears.
Because, particularly in the aftermath of a crisis, there are many voices competing to be heard.
So here are some important ways to help your message stand out –
A title for an email or presentation is often the last thing to be considered. But it should be one of the first.
How many emails have you received in the last few weeks headed A Message from the CEO? And what did you immediately do with them?
Give the title some thought. It should attract your audience’s attention, and make them want to find out more.
What’s the point in crafting a beautiful, thoughtful and powerful communication if it never gets read because the title was so tedious?
Consider your title as important as a newspaper considers its headlines. They are your shop window and attract people to your message.
Be creative. Be provocative. Be entertaining. But most of all, be alluring. Make me want to find out more.
For some entertaining, but no less brilliant examples, you might remember these famous newspaper headlines:
Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious (The Sun)
Ban Ki Goes to Hollywood (The Independent)
Old McDonnell has a plan. He eyes IOUs (The Economist)
Over £100m! Is this the rail price? Is this just fantasy? Caught up in land buys. No escape from bureaucracy (The Ulster Gazette)
These became celebrated because they took thought, but it was time well spent.
The messages made a mark, and the articles they introduced got read, which is the purpose of a strong title or headline.
It might be the coming of the internet, or social media, but the most effective method of modern communication tends to be short, sharp and simple.
You don’t want lots of clauses, commas and confusion. Crisp, clean sentences are much more appealing to the eye, and indeed ear, and far more likely to be taken in.
I’ll give you an example by quoting a couple of wonderful writers of yesteryear.
It is commonly said that no man was ever converted by argument, but there is a single one which will make any Laodicean in England, let him be once love-sick, wear prayer-books and become a zealous Episcopalian – the argument that his sweetheart can be seen from his pew.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of Thomas Hardy, but it takes a while to translate what he’s saying here.
I think he probably means a man will gladly go to church if his sweetheart is there.
Modern attention spans simply don’t tolerate such writing. A reader will just give up when faced with a sentence that resembles a cryptic crossword clue.
So how to write in the modern world? Think about adopting a style more in tune with another iconic author.
I’m clear enough in the head, he thought. Too clear. I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers.
Ernest Hemingway leads the way – if you’ll excuse the pun – in modern writing. His work is simple to read and easy to understand, even if he’s dealing with deep and complex concepts.
Another point to remember is to avoid jargon. Every industry has its own, but your communications should reach beyond your own specialist community and out into the world.
Here’s an example of wonderful gobbledygook jargon, provided for me by AlgoDynamix, a financial risk forecasting company I work with in Cambridge.
Utilising Brownian motion models, non-regime switching data universes, multiple quantitative data source complex clustering and characterisation algorithms, we forecast equities’ growth.
That’s the technical way they might describe what they do. But in translation, I prefer this –
We use advanced maths to call the markets.
It still tells us how they work, but in a form which is understandable, and memorable.
My own version of the golden rule of writing style is this, and I repeat it time and again whenever I’m teaching communications –
Simple isn’t stupid. Simple is smart.
Less is More
There’s an old maxim in the messaging trade, which has it that less is more.
I sometimes say that it’s not the word count you should care about, but how much the words count.
You don’t need lots, and lots, and lots, and lots more words to make a mark. Not if they’re the right words.
Here, I call on history for support. Everyone has heard of the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s famous rallying call in the American Civil War.
It was so powerful, so impactful that its legend has lived down the years, and it’s often quoted as a masterpiece of public speaking and persuasion.
But how long was the speech?
Not as long as you might think, I suspect.
The answer is 272 words. Yes, just 272.
It probably took Lincoln less than two minutes to deliver.
He didn’t need lots and lots and lots etc. etc. of words. Because he chose the right words.
Another important way to make your communications stand out and ensure your message gets heard is to show some character.
Writing like a robot, with boring, formal language is a turn off. Play with the words to make them memorable, or use wit, analysis or opinions.
After all, why do you think quotations like these have remained in the popular memory?
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. (Oscar Wilde)
I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk, so long as they do what I say. (Margaret Thatcher)
History will be kind to me for I intend to write it. (Winston Churchill)
And to demonstrate that this principle is just as important today as it was years ago –
We will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again. (Queen Elizabeth II, addressing the nation about the Covid-19 crisis)
Finally, make sure you cover everything you need to say to tell your story.
It would be a shame to take the effort to craft a beautiful message, but leave out an important point.
Here’s a lovely rhyme which I use as a checklist to ensure you’ve included all the details you should –
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant’s Child
In the field of communications, it helps to always remember one critical point –
No one has to listen to you. You have to make them want to listen to you.
That means being clear on your message, and knowing how to present it in an informative, but also appealing manner.
I’ll finish with a favourite quotation, just to emphasise how important good communications are, both as we recover from this crisis, and in the times ahead, as life returns to normal.
It’s from James Humes, speechwriter to five American Presidents:
“The Art Of Communication Is The Language Of Leadership.”
Communications consultant, journalist, author, and business coach
Thursday 14 May 2020 14:30-15:15
Are you interested in showing your customers, partners and staff how your business or organisation is going to come back strongly from the recent crisis?
Join us for a webinar with Simon Hall, who will cover all the tricks for talking effectively to your community.