This post is part of TBH Creative’s series on digital marketing, crisis communications, and COVID-19.

Even if you have never watched Monty Python’s classic comedy Life of Brian (1979), you’ve likely heard Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

During emergencies like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, though, it can be hard to keep such an optimistic viewpoint. One of the best tools a marketing and communications team can have for weathering a storm with a smile during times of disruption is an up-to-date crisis communications strategy.

Keep reading to learn questions you can ask to be proactive and create a crisis communications plan—plus, find out when a crisis might mean it’s time to pause your marketing and when it could be an opportunity to do more.

Developing a crisis communications strategy

Questions to consider before a crisis

When you can, plan. Preparedness should be your goal because any planning will give you a headstart. It’s impossible to account for every scenario, but one certainty is that you’ll face an obstacle sooner or later. Doing some provisional legwork will create a solid foundation your team can use to be more responsive when it’s time to start executing a customized crisis communications strategy.

Think through the following questions—before you have to modify normal operations—to make whether it’s due to a public relations snafu, emergency product recall, short-term closing after a natural disaster, or indefinite situation like the COVID-19 crisis.

1.) Form your crisis communications team

  • Who will be your primary point-person? Pick a good communicator, someone collaborative who asks the right questions and works well under pressure.
  • Who will be on your support team? Choose a handful of people with a known ability to juggle priorities and handle change.
  • Who will be the stakeholders, if any, needed for sign-off on changes? Figure out what sorts of actions will need their buy-in and which decisions your team can execute without oversight.
  • Who can handle any matters that require legal attention during a crisis?
  • Who can you call on if you don’t have the resources in-house to tackle all of your crisis communications needs? Are the vendors you currently working with offering these sorts of services? What’s their experience helping their clients through challenging situations?

One of the best tools a marketing and communications team can have for weathering a storm with a smile during times of disruption is an up-to-date crisis communications strategy.Tweet this

One of the best tools a marketing and communications team can have for weathering a storm with a smile during times of disruption is an up-to-date crisis communications strategy.

2.) Audit your external and internal assets

Which channels do you currently have available for communicating essential business changes and news with your customers?

Examples of some of your crisis marketing tools might include:

  • Website alerts, microsites, blogs, and other customizable content
  • In-app alerts
  • Email blasts
  • Phone calls or automated voicemails
  • Social media posts and ads
  • Television and radio ads
  • SMS and MMS messaging services
  • Web paid search ads
  • Digital display screens and other in-store signage
  • Mail

Which channels do you currently have for communicating business changes and news with your employees?

Examples of some crisis communications tools might include:

  • Internal system login alerts
  • Email blasts
  • Intranet updates
  • Team collaboration services, like Slack and Microsoft Teams
  • Digital display screens and bulletin boards
  • In-person or virtual all-staff meetings
  • Print memos

3.) Define your target audiences

Who are the people you absolutely must contact when there’s a crisis? Do you have them coded into lists? In some cases, you might need to reach out to everyone in your database, but more often than not, you’ll want to target your messages around the needs of specific groups. Do you have current contact information for the people in these groups?

4.) Catalog all your automated, pre-scheduled communications

What are your current and upcoming marketing expenses? Which of those expenses can you stop or pause? (And, what are the penalties, if any, for making adjustments?)

5.) Get your analytics in order

You’ve got to get your data right to make informed decisions during a communications crisis and after. What will success look like? Figure out which goals make the most sense for measuring success.

Are you measuring the performance of your communications yet? Do you measure the right things? If you’re not sure, this is an opportunity to have a conversation about what matters and where you want to go (and how marketing can help you get there).

Pro-tip: Think about analytics now so that you have what you need to thoughtfully monitor and analyze your crisis communication during and after to make your long-term planning more strategic.

6.) Make a plan for paying for marketing outreach during a crisis

  • What are your current and upcoming marketing expenses? What funds can be reallocated if necessary?
  • Which of those expenses can you stop or pause? (And, what are the penalties, if any, for making adjustments?)

Bonus question: Who is your competition?

Even when things are going alright, it makes sense to keep track of what your competition is doing. It’s an even better idea during a crisis.

Take Allstate, for example. Early during the coronavirus outbreak, Allstate offered a shelter-in-place premium payback to its insurance customers who were driving less because fewer cars on the road meant fewer accidents (and fewer claims). Allstate’s simple gesture received significant media coverage and helped support their brand message that “you’re in good hands” when you trust their company to be helpful and reassuring in a time of confusion.

Allstate proved that if you want to hold on to your customers, treat them right when times are tough and they need you. No one knows this more than State Farm. After Allstate started making refunds, State Farm had to quickly come up with their version of a payback because their customers were expressing frustration and disappointment on social media. When State Farm finally came up with its payback plan, they had to roll it out with an expensive, full-blown crisis marketing campaign to counteract the slight some vocal customers felt.

Questions to consider during a crisis

Unless you’re upper management, you can’t control your business decisions, but—as a marketing professional—you can help shape the way your company pivots its communications during times of upheaval and uncertainty.

If it’s an external crisis, your customers’ emotions may be heightened. They might be hypersensitive to any marketing outreach that feels inappropriate, so striking the right tone is extra critical.

If it’s an internal crisis, your customers’ impression of what’s going on will be shaped by what you tell them (and what you don’t) and how timely and helpful your communications are.

A crisis is an opportunity to shift your mindset and reprioritize, which marketing really needs your attention. Use the following questions as a guide for how to adjust your communications during a crisis.

1.) Figure out what you need to communicate (and when)

What’s happening? What’s your company’s story in this narrative? Take stock of what is going on and how it has changed about your business. What information do you need to share with your customers and employees?

To help you get started creating a list, here are some of the types of updates you might need to share:

  • Customer service options
  • New hours of operation
  • Postponements/delays
  • Closures/partial closures
  • Delivery timelines and options
  • Changes in service offerings or available products
  • Cancellation and refund policies

Create a plan to share these updates not only with your customers but also with your staff. Just because you include new information on your website about shipping delays doesn’t guarantee that all of the customer service reps in your call center will see the update and provide accurate information to callers. Keep everyone in the loop.

2.) Determine who communicates

In some cases—depending on what you’re talking about—it might make sense to have a reassuring message come from your CEO. In other situations, your customers might prefer to hear from a company spokesperson, customer service manager, or even other customers.

Consider that your message’s “who” might change based on the channel. A pithy website alert will likely have no attribution, but an empathetic email message might make sense to have come from your company’s president.

3.) Pay attention to the evolving situation (and what your customers are saying)

If you can only do one thing, focus on how you can be helpful.

Poor customer service can quickly cancel out any positives your crisis communications outreach might achieve. If your company is making any significant changes during a crisis, adjust your marketing to figure out what you can do to help your customers navigate what’s happening.

Engage with your customers where they already are and be responsive. Make sure you’re covering the basics, like:

  • Monitoring your customer service inbox
  • Including up-to-date information in paid ads
  • Posting news and updates to social media
  • Adding information to an FAQ on your website

Questions to consider after a crisis

When you can, plan. It’s impossible to account for every scenario. Still, you can do some legwork in advance to create a solid foundation for executing your custom crisis communications strategy when the need arises, specifically in regards to identifying who can help and what communications tools you have.

1.) Examine your marketing performance

In times of uncertainty, it’s not always about conversions. Where were you successful? Did you hit your marketing goals? If not, why? What feedback did you receive from your customers?

For example, in cases like the ongoing COVID-19 situation, if you were able to keep up with business as usual (or even potentially reach new customers because other providers closed shop), you might find that measuring brand awareness might make the most sense. Did you retain customers? Gain new leads? What can you feel good about? Where is there room for improvement?

2.) Identify opportunities and set new goals

It’s time to dig deeper! Once things have settled back to a somewhat normal pace, take time to reflect and think about potential future risks and what you learned from this crisis that might help you next time around.

Look back on how your crisis communications performed, then use these insights to make changes to your crisis communications strategy as well as your long-term marketing, as appropriate. Are any processes repeatable? Write them up as a best practice in your company’s process documentation repository for future reference.

Be prepared

The Girl Scouts’ motto is to be prepared and ready to do the job well, even in an emergency. The same is required if you really want to excel in marketing.

Crisis communications are delicate and one of the biggest challenges anyone working in marketing might face. Taking on the challenges of these kinds of difficult situations can bring out the best and the worst of your team. Having hope things will work out will only get you so far.

It’s always much easier to “look on the bright side” when a problem arises if you’ve given your company the best shot at success with a crisis marketing playbook.