How S.I. Businesses Should Communicate During Crisis



Advice from crisis communications specialists and Staten Island Chamber of Commerce member PRCG | Haggerty LLC.

With “social distancing” and “shelter in place” being the new norm, supporting your business may not be top of mind for many consumers. Fear of lost wages and bills piling up due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, have caused consumers to, understandably, be more jittery than usual.

Shutdowns, curfews, and laws limiting the size of gatherings, are becoming more and more severe every day and the extreme caution being exercised will undoubtedly have a major impact on Staten Island’s local economy.

So how do you most effectively address your customers under these trying circumstances?

It all starts with making it a priority to keep your customers informed, and calm, as that will be critically important in the weeks to come. Businesses that let rumor and gossip rule will be at a disadvantage as events unfold.

Here are some simple but effective guidelines:

Have a plan. Before any significant event that is pertinent to your particular business occurs, you would presumably lay out a game plan for how you are going to approach the upcoming challenge. Responding publicly during a crisis is no different. Organizations need a communications plan in place before the bad news hits. You don’t want to wait until you are in the middle of a crisis to start thinking about what you’re going to say, to which audiences, and in what order. Not having a plan is like sending a football team onto the field and only then coming up with the plays. You may win the game, but don’t bet on it.

Not having a plan is like sending a football team onto the field and only then coming up with the plays. You may win the game, but don’t bet on it.

Be human, empathetic and engaged with your community. Your lawyers will tell you to say nothing for as long as possible, then they’ll hit you with “legalese” and dated clichés. Resist this temptation. It may sound elemental, but your customers want you to be human. They want you to care. And they want to hear from you, regularly and confidently. They want to know you understand what they are experiencing, that you are doing your best to be there for them and that you are taking steps to ensure their health and safety when they visit.

Know what you know… and know what you don’t know. Get a clear grasp of the current facts before you communicate to your members, customers or other key audiences, but understand what you don’t know yet. And what may change. From more than two decades of working on crises of all kinds, we can tell you two things: first, the initial information you receive during a crisis is very often wrong. Second, it’s the guessing and speculation that gets you in trouble – particularly in the early stages of a negative event. If you’re still gathering information, or don’t know something, just say that. Don’t guess or speculate.

Let your audience know that this is a fluid environment, and plans may change. Similarly, avoid the temptation to make definitive statements in a fluid, changing environment. Explain to the public, for example, that while your business is staying open for now with normal hours, that may well change. The public understands uncertainty and changing plans. They don’t, however, take well to pronouncements presented as rock-solid that turn out to be, “no longer applicable.”

Don’t think you’re going to spin this. Don’t be too clever by thinking you’re going to find a cute hashtag, a slogan, or some other “spin” that is going to make this issue go away. Unfortunately, there’s more than a few marketing and PR people out there who’ll try to convince you there’s some slick magic bullet you can use. We can assure you, it doesn’t work that way. In a crisis, the key is to present honest, accurate information in a timely manner. Spin too much and your audience becomes dizzy; bend the truth too far and it’ll come back to bite you. Rather than thinking about what you can say to get out of this, think about what your audience really needs to get through it.

Some businesses are just innately better suited to withstand crisis of the variety we are currently experiencing, but everyone should be thinking about effective communication in a time of uncertainty or crisis.

It’s always good to remember, while you may not have needed a readily available crisis communication plan up until now, the only certainty in life is change.

PRCG | Haggerty LLC is a strategic and crisis communications firm based in Manhattan. PRCG is a member of the Staten Island Chamber, and CEO Jim Haggerty and Director Jim Rocco are lifelong Staten Islanders.