Spitfire Strategies

Communicating During a Crisis

Erin B. Hart

By Erin B. Hart
Chief Innovation Officer

Expressions of caring connect us in our shared humanity during challenging times. We are navigating similar, and very personal challenges, as we manage our lives around the spread of COVID-19.

Many of Spitfire’s trusted partners are working with us to determine if they should address the pandemic and, if so, how they might do so. I often counsel organizations on crisis communication, from what actually qualifies as a crisis to how and what to share as a crisis plays out. What you’re doing now may not be crisis communication work, but we are all communicating during a crisis.

As you’re thinking about whether and how to communicate with your partners, we hope these five guiding principles will be helpful – and ideally make life feel a bit easier for the folks who read or hear your words.

1. Be compassionate.

When you have information to share and feel that you’re experiencing a crisis, it’s easy to skip this simple step and plow toward the details you need to convey. Everyone experiences moments of crisis in different and personal ways. But pain is pain. Worry is worry. These moments are real and awful for the person experiencing them. Acknowledging that by expressing your authentic compassion connects you with your audience and establishes common ground where we’re all feeling and experiencing challenging moments.

2. Communicate often and regularly.

If you want to share well wishes, do so, but don’t overwhelm your audiences. Be compassionate, but get to the point.

And if you have information that’s important to managing the crisis or updating partners, you must communicate often and regularly.

  • If you’re providing direct-service information, establish a regular schedule for your communications, and plan to communicate at least once a day. Your audiences need information and the comfort of hearing from you regularly, and a consistent, announced schedule will signal when you’ll be back in touch with them.
  • If you’re providing program updates outside of basic-need services, share what you can and let folks know when you’ll be back in touch. These details, such as times when community sites will be closed, affect the work-from-home schedules many people are currently creating and determining how to manage.
  • If your communications focus on a topic not related, or indirectly related, to COVID-19, use good judgment about which audiences you’re working to reach. Insiders who know your issue are likely continuing their work, but new audiences will have limited ability to focus on your communication as they manage their way through health concerns, family care and upended schedules.

3. Say what you know. 

If you have relevant information to share, share it. Be clear about what you do know, share it in a way that builds trust and helps people engage. Remember that it’s more challenging for all of us to focus on details at times when we’re stressed, so clear details in your communications – about program closures, support, schedules and more – will create clarity and comfort for your audiences.

4. Be honest about what you don’t know but are working to figure out.

It’s OK to say you don’t know something. We’re all figuring things out, so if you don’t know when you’ll reopen or reschedule a program, communicate that. And be sure to follow up. Updates that let folks know when you’re likely to announce dates, what you’re monitoring and how you’re making decisions will further build your relationship with audiences.

5. Share easy-to-follow action steps.

People – all people – respond to hope. Letting someone know there’s an action they can take gives them agency in shaping what their world looks like, and that sense of control can help them feel comforted and hopeful. Communicate what someone can do, and be specific. Your action may be to encourage someone to stay home, check back with you on April 1 or engage via an online platform. Be sure it’s specific and doable to ensure your audience is clear about what to do and can experience this sense of hope that’s tied to being actively involved.

And a final note: be a helper and ask for help. We’re encouraged by the sharing and collaboration we see across the public interest sector. We do the work we do to make a difference, and it’s heartening to see the way our colleagues across nonprofits, foundations, community organizations and international groups are asking each other for help, sharing ideas and navigating our world together. Please reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to share what’s working for you.

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