Crain’s Cleveland Business | Accurate information is crucial during times of distress

Originally published online at Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Businesses have had to quickly pivot from marketing communications to crisis communications in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies can use the same traditional channels to connect with internal and external audiences, but crisis communication is a balance between what is required, what is helpful and what can be too much communication.

“My mailbox is filled with companies I’ve done business with and have never done business with, all telling me about how much they care about my business, how much they care about their employees and how clean their cars and counters are,” said Bruce Hennes, CEO of Cleveland’s Hennes Communications, which works exclusively in crisis communications. Most of the firm’s work centers around companies that need to get ahead of bad news.

Hennes cautioned that the way businesses normally communicate may not be effective during a crisis.

“People take in information differently, process information differently and act on information differently in a crisis,” he noted.

Although there is nothing untoward in companies reaching out to customers during times of crisis, the messaging should follow a simple template: Here is some information you may want to know, here is how you can get additional information and here is how you can give feedback and suggestions.

“Most companies should know that you should not brazenly pursue commercial business on the back of coronavirus,” Hennes said.

He added that it’s also important for organizations not to give in to the temptation to over-reassure when dealing with internal communications. It’s better to validate employees’ justified fears and provide guidance to them.

“We would much rather tell people that things were better than expected, not worse than anticipated,” Hennes said.

Law firms are often tasked with providing critical guidance for clients during difficult times. John Swansinger, partner in charge of the Cleveland offices of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, stressed that messaging needs to be both precise and truthful.

“People are making vital decisions, and when things are not accurate it is misleading, and people do not forgive that easily,” he said.

Difficult messaging in chaotic times also needs to be empathetic, concise and timely.

He said it’s vital that a business reach out to clients and reassure them that a company is able to provide needed services — but be careful not to overdo that messaging.

“It is a fine line,” Swansinger said. “I have seen a lot of material out there about COVID-19 from the same source day after day after day. Customers want to hear you are in here, you are still in business, but make sure you are not offending by overselling your services.”

Information, even if critically important, can be overwhelming if you attempt to impart it all at once, but consistent communications can be very effective.

Daily pandemic-related press conferences featuring Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health‘s Dr. Amy Acton demonstrate that complex information can be communicated successfully if approached the right way.

Since the outbreak, Acton’s updates on COVID-19 case numbers and progression, taking place every day at the same time and using honesty and transparency, have reassured Ohioans.

Consistency is important and routine is reassuring, especially when other routines have been upended.

“Structure is one of the things that can help decrease fear and anxiety. Even if it is not information we really want to hear,” she said.

Timmons-Mitchell, who also is a senior research associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at CWRU’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, said Acton’s degrees in medicine and public health help her messaging to be accurate and not overwhelming.

“She studies large-scale public-level trends and knows how to consume that research and communicate it effectively. She taught public health classes at OSU for years and she is teaching all of us now,” Timmons-Mitchell said. “She is able to take a very difficult concept and make it understandable.”

Acton is also able to combine competence and compassion when she speaks. Her tone is also important because it negates fear.