Lessons from a Former Crisis Communicator

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This week’s Twitter hack got me thinking about my past career as head of public relations and communications for three major Hollywood studios. You might not think that my entertainment background would qualify me to talk about crisis communication, but you’d be surprised how much you learn when you’re the spokesperson explaining mass layoffs, lawsuits, viewer boycotts, even death on the set of a television show.

From responding to a hack to discussing the repercussions of COVID-19 with your team, it can be very helpful to think like a crisis communicator during difficult times. See what you can glean from my lessons learned in more than 15 years in Hollywood.

Get in front of the story. This is PR 101. Don’t wait for an entire narrative to be spun before you get your voice and viewpoint out to your audience. In terms of COVID, the current upward spiral of the virus’s spread is the news, of course. But you need to be prepared to respond to the evolving situation, whether that’s to let your team know of changes in your work-from-home policies or on-site safety and hygiene regulations. One of my clients with a tourism-based destination business assigned “Safety Concierges” to circulate through their property, ensuring that protocols were being followed but also sending a message to guests that they were in safe hands.

Expect the unexpected. While you can’t anticipate every scenario, depending on your business, you should have plans in place for immediate communication in response to virus outbreaks, strikes and walkouts, cyber-security, and anything else that might negatively impact your business. If you have a product recall or a natural disaster, it’s already too late to plan. Anticipate and train others in your crisis plan.

Determine your method of response. Although the messaging will change along with the circumstances, you need to have a consistent method of communicating with your teams—especially remote teams. A designated person or persons should be in charge of internal and external communication (for small businesses, that might be the same person) and everyone should be trained in the use of your preferred communication portal. Whether you’re using Slack, or Teams, or cell phones, make sure you can reach everyone at a moment’s notice.

Be the rock for your team. Make sure your team knows that they can trust you to share information that is critical to their health and well-being. Tell the truth, repeat it frequently, allow for questions and dialogue, and be the rock your people deserve. It will go a long way toward getting you through this tough time.

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