“Personal video messages are more convincing than written texts,” says Stephan Feldhaus, founder and owner of the boutique communication agency Feldhaus&Partner. As a person, one becomes more tangible, more approachable in image and sound. Seen in this way, with this text I am already making the first mistake on the “minefield” of corporate crisis communication. But I like to have a text at hand. Especially in crisis situations, it is advantageous to retrieve information presented in text form at your own pace and to draw out relevant text passages at any time according to one’s own situation and also to read it repeatedly. However, this is not intended to be effective in denying the video message in times of crisis.
Prio I: Internal Communication
Crises are sensitive or completely upside down in the familiar situation. Whether on a global scale as is currently the case with the Corona crisis or “individual”, triggered, for example, by scandal stories or cyberattacks. Uncertainty is spreading and questions are starting to pile up – on the part of employees and customers. The excitement and interest in information is now particularly high. Especially in today’s media world and the pronounced push mentality that has grown out of it. The need for information must be responded to as quickly as possible and at regular intervals with comprehensive and transparent communication. On the one hand to get through the crisis without losing the goodwill of employees and customers due to irritation, and on the other hand to prepare for the post-crisis period. Of course, one does not want to be forgotten during a time of crisis in the market, but prioritising internal communication must be given before marketing. “Because if you no longer have your own employees on your side, you have lost,” sums up Sereina Schmidt, who teaches on crisis communication at the Marketing & Business School Zurich (MBSZ) among others.
During times of crisis, it is important to significantly increase the cadence of internal communication. It is essential to communicate new developments in a timely manner and not to withhold information. If this communication is carried out by the CEO personally, the trust is created. It signals: I am sitting in the same boat with you and I am reachable. Depending on the need for one or more meetings per day, physically or digitally, and written updates or video messages on their results. It is important to maintain this cadence during the acute crisis period, even if no new information is available. After all, communicating truthful “no news” can also fill information vakua. This increases traceability and prevents assumptions of conscious information retention from beginning to circulate.
Situation meetings in the business and/or team management should be logged, if possible, where possible, whereby a “sober” decision protocol is not sufficient depending on the degree of emotionality. In the case of the convening of crisis units, it is imperative that interdisciplinary cooperation can take place – communication is a very central part of the crisis staff work. Decisions must be taken on a factual basis, even if the facts change at hourly or daily intervals and the decisions must therefore be adjusted in a high cadence. Speculation is not a basis for decision-making.
Finally, it should be emphasized that internal communication benefits at times of crisis if one detaches oneself from a completely objective attitude and offers empathy and motivation. Emotions are not only allowed, but desired. Employees should be able to ask questions and get involved at any time, because this opens up appreciation and can lead to new ideas in dealing with upcoming challenges. In addition, every employee is happy if they can help, which is why a clear division of tasks should take place as soon as possible.
Prio II: Public relations (external communication)
External communication is necessary when customers or partners and investors are dependent on information. This includes, in particular, any information needs that may arise as a result of revelations, because these in turn generate uncertainty or, at worst, even bewilderment. If such a need for information breaks through the social networks based on mutagenicness, anger, frustration, accusation, etc., a spark can become a reputation-threatening inferno within minutes.
These characteristics outlined in the previous section relate to socially oriented communication. It aims to promote understanding and trust as well as image maintenance. In the event of a so-called shitstorm, the company must take action and react in a targeted manner in this area of external communication. Other public relations work is not recommended in such a situation, because it can be punished as a distraction.
If there are no shitstorms, socially oriented communication – public relations – offers a company interesting opportunities to remain visible unsolicited in times of crisis. For example, by talking about yourself – providing insights “behind the scenes”. You give “personal” prize and thus create closeness. During the current Corona times, symphony orchestras show how their musicians deal with music at home. Or various hotel companies take short videos through their kitchens, show the necessary work steps for the thorough cleaning of their wellness zone, or document how they hand over the leftoverfood to social institutions. There are many possibilities here. A company can also make a real profile with situational CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) measures, but this is a challenging act of wire rope that can act as hypocrisy boomerang.
However, classic marketing communication – the second part of external communication – with sales-promoting intentions should be temporarily omitted. If a company is in crisis – especially if it is “self-made” by a misconduct, for example – then the willingness to buy its service is usually low or non-existent, which is why its marketing expenses for advertising fizzle out or even annoy. First of all, public relations must be used to restore trust.
In the current Corona crisis, external communication poses relatively few dangers, as companies are generally in the victim role. In other words, the crisis is not self-inflicted and therefore there is no need to repair or avert reputational damage. Now, it is crucial that the Corona-related victim role does not translate into reputational loss due to unhappy communication. A complete renunciation of public relations not only runs the risk of being forgotten, but can also be regarded as unprofessional and “absent”.
So what can you communicate in Corona times? Not the standard advertising campaign and no pure number-data-fact-messages. Now positive emotions and, if possible, solidarity and generosity count – no lawsuits and no accusations from third parties, no apportionment of blame, no arrogance.
Reputation as a fragile asset
One of Warren Buffett’s most frequently quoted statements is: “It takes 20 years to build a good reputation and five minutes to destroy it.” This is generally the case, but in times of crisis the public is particularly “sensitive”, sensitive and analytical. This was painfully felt by Adidas at the end of March. In the wake of the Corona crisis and the closure of stores worldwide, with a few exceptions and staggered in time, Adidas announced on 27 March 2020 that it wanted to suspend the payment of the local rents of its stores due to a lack of sales. The communication was unfinished and led to a wave of outrage. At the beginning of March, the sports goods manufacturer reported a record profit of EUR 2 billion, which it had achieved in the 2019 financial year. And now, during Corona’s time, he alienated many politicians and Adidas fans with a lack of empathy by showing himself unsolidaristic during generally difficult times. Prominent German politicians scolded the company via Twitter, and on other social media channels, long-standing customers allegedly proclaimed with the hashtag #adidasboycott that they would no longer support Adidas in the future. On April 1, 2020, Adidas issued an apology and announced that it did not want to suspend the rents. Adidas tried to smooth out the failed communication: from the outset, the group was only concerned with deferring the rental costs – not a tenant’s leave – and they did not want to demand this from private landlords, who themselves could be in existential distress. Either way, the damage was done. The “Adidas story” and the #adidasboycott made the rounds.
Adidas could not save or allow hours to be saved as part of this outrage. In addition, the sporting goods giant must accept the accusation that it has shown its “ugly face” in the crisis. Now we need convincing public relations work. However, the re-integration of Adidas’s long-standing social commitment must be very deliberate from the point of view of time, because if this is done too soon, it is likely to be derisive as a mockery.
Company decisions also had a big impact on reputation before 2020, but in The Times of Corona, they manifest themselves as downright fall-backs in terms of the success or failure of companies. Degrees in times of crisis, urgent economic reasons may require the decision-making of serious decisions, but their communication is of particular concern. The order applies: man, animal, environment, infrastructure and last lyses money and finances. In the case of an accident, the first priority of communication is the possible victims, their families and the well-being of other employees and customers. Then the effects on the environment are to be addressed and, finally, any material damage, losses and failures. If this order is violated, in the vast majority of cases, there will be fierce criticism.
Communication at times of crisis should make it clear that one cares about employees, customers, suppliers and that one wants to deliver solutions instead of prioritizing the sale of the services. This may remain a “downstream” intention, but you should not advertise the wellness offer directly with a price tag on it. Instead, one can express how much all employees are happy to be able to pamper the guests again in the wellness oasis after the “lockdown waiver”.
In times of crisis, one should not remain silent. Who has ever been able to solve a relationship crisis by concealing or “sweeping under the carpet”? Crisis communication is exhausting, must always take place in a particularly demanding environment and therefore requires full attention. For this reason, it is advisable to prepare crisis communication at “peacetime” – creating templates, manuals and checklists, training staff, coordination with any existing crisis staff, assignments of tasks, etc. In the spirit of Erich Kästner: “It is much better to build dams in good time than to hope that the tide will take sense.”
In order for attention to be used in a bundled manner, it is important to evaluate which communication needs to be conducted. In any case, internal communication proves to be the A&O. It must be concentrated and intensively managed. With regard to external communication, a distinction should be made between public relations and marketing: public relations, yes, if external parties such as customers are affected by the crisis; Marketing, on the other hand, usually has a difficult time during times of crisis. If external communication is not necessarily appropriate, it may be useful to concentrate fully on internal communication and to prepare for the “external visibility” after the crisis – so that every word sits.
With regard to the Corona crisis, most companies are yet to walk through the “minefield” of communication. Until recently, many companies were able to take over the Communication of the Federal Council without risk. The restrictions were easier to communicate than the current easing steps. “The consequences of the gradual easing also mean segmentation and individualization in the communication of companies,” says Regina Gerdes of gullotti communications. The “hiding” behind federal council orders is passé in many places. This means that the actual communication performance is only now really starting. In addition to communication tools, common sense with an attitude to truthfulness and realistic optimism is required, speckled with a little humour when possible.
Parts of these explanations are based on the publication“Professional Crisis Communication. Basic knowledge, impulses and recommendations for practical action» by Jana Meissner and Annik Schach (eds.), Wiesbaden 2019. In addition, content from webinars by Sereina Schmidt(Sereina Schmidt AG, Neudorf) and Regina Gerdes (gullotti communications GmbH, Winterthur) was included, as well as the interview of the werbewoche.ch with Stephan Feldhaus (Feldhaus&Partner, Basel) of 24 April 2020 and various articles of the“Neue Zürcher Zeitung”.