This piece originally appeared on PR News and has been republished here with permission.
When a crisis hits, the volume of news can be overwhelming. Enter the novel coronavirus. The firehose of content is on full blast, streaming directly at executives from every angle; peers, investors, board members, and more. If you have been tasked with distilling this information for executive leadership, the project is undoubtedly daunting. While most communications departments are experts in putting information out into the world, many may be struggling now to invert the process. Quality of news varies considerably, so your leadership needs to know they can trust your communication as the gold standard.
It sounds obvious, but the most critical step to managing the information flow up to leadership happens before the crisis hits. Organizations need to build the infrastructure for executive crisis communication in advance. As many are learning now, if you wait until the volume of information is as gargantuan as today’s coronavirus news, you’ll scramble to react, and your efforts will be ineffective. While no one could have predicted a crisis like the difficult one we’re currently facing, it’s crucial to establish your crisis communication processes so you’re better equipped to handle whatever gets thrown your way.
To be prepared for any crisis, develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) and revisit them quarterly or semi-annually.
Before the crisis
The Person-in-Charge (POC): Who runs point on monitoring the media on a day-to-day basis? Does the POC change in a crisis or can you mobilize additional resources? Do they change based on the type of crisis? You don’t want to find out during a chat at the watercooler that you have a manager with a background in public health who isn’t being utilized. Know where you have expertise and use that to your advantage. If the next big hit is a financial crisis know who on your team already has the foundation to understand the jargon and broader implications. Identify the knowledge gaps on your team and fill them ahead of time.
Frequency: What time do your executives start their day? Do they span multiple time zones? A 7am ET update may suffice for a US-based firm, but if you have executives in London, how are they being serviced? Do you produce an update daily? Twice daily? No matter what, do not fall into the trap of forwarding news as it comes in. Your C-suite likely does not have time to read full-text articles on an ad-hoc basis. Identify when you’ll send updates in your SOPs and stick to that schedule, so your leadership knows when to expect them.
Distribution: How widely will your updates be distributed? Remember your job is not to inform your entire company about every piece of information related to the crisis. One solution might be to distribute to VPs and above and allow them to pass on to their teams as needed. Save this distribution list as a listserv or group email contact. Reply-all won’t cut it.
Format: How tech savvy is your leadership team? Will they expect a printed copy on their desks or something mobile-friendly? Are they voracious readers or do they want tight bullet points? You’ll want to learn their preferences beforehand. As with frequency, these are decisions that require buy-in from your leadership.
When the crisis hits
Refine the Source List: You should already know if your executives are Wall Street Journal junkies. Look at additional sources that consider the news through your industry lens. Certainly, you already know the list of trade journals in your space, but keep in mind that those sources may be slower to report on major news, depending on the situation. Which are the most up-to-date, reliable, and evidence-based? If you have a warehouse in coronavirus-stricken Italy, consider looking at top Italian news directly or monitoring trusted sources for international news like Reuters, AFP, BBC, etc. Be careful with sources that have political leanings. If you currently have a Google News alert set up for coronavirus, you’re in trouble. Use the source list as a tool in your tool belt to shrink down the volume of coverage.
Data, Data, Data: As much as humanly possible, use data. Save your CEO time by pulling the data points out of the articles and displaying them prominently. An article with a ton of data may have only one data point that’s relevant to your firm. It up to you to sift through the noise to put that figure in front of your leaders. Bear in mind that statistics get manipulated all the time. The source of the data is just as important as the data itself; use citations clearly. For coronavirus updates, prioritize data from the CDC, Johns Hopkins, NIH, and other trusted institutions in the infectious disease space.
Eliminate Bias: Remember the bit about a good POC? Someone with experience in the field will be better equipped to sort through fact from fiction, but even they may have their own biases. Put a second or third pair of eyes on everything. If adding internal perspective, clearly label it as such. When a journalist paints a negative picture, attribute the sentiment to the journalist, not to the situation. There’s a fine line between presenting the reality of media coverage and shielding your executives from it. If the news is bad, you can’t pretend it’s good. You might be inclined to say, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” but that’s not a winning strategy. Instead, find an approach that won’t inflame your leaders, but also doesn’t leave them in the dark.
If you’re not already briefing your leaders on the coronavirus, it’s time to rethink how you communicate with them. Following these steps will provide value for your executives and remind them of the many ways the communications department is a vital member of the crisis team. If you’re just getting started and the above seems overwhelming, consider outsourcing the work this time around. And as soon as the crisis dies down, get cracking on those SOPs so you’re ready for the next one.