Communicating in a Crisis: What Plan Sponsors Need to Know

Whether it’s a global pandemic like COVID-19, a major shift in your industry, or a significant change that impacts your business, there are times when you need to respond and communicate quickly. But how you respond shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction—because it’s just too easy to get it wrong.

Communicating in a Crisis: What Plan Sponsors Need to Know

With the COVID-19 situation, we’ve all had a crash course in just how critical it is to communicate with employees and plan members during a crisis. Here are some lessons learned.

Have a crisis communication plan.

COVID-19 put many organizations’ systems and processes to the test—and not everyone was prepared. Set up your organization to manage these situations more effectively by making a plan, including answering these key questions:

  • Can you reach all your employees or plan members in case of an emergency? How quickly, and through which media?
  • Who’s responsible for responding? (Note that the answer may be different, depending on the type of situation you’re facing.)
  • Who’s responsible for getting the messages out?
  • Who takes ownership of what is being communicated (or not communicated)?
  • How will you handle media inquiries?

In a crisis, time is of the essence, so planning ahead is vital. Once you’ve established your crisis communication plan, test it out, and refine accordingly. Ensure that your plan is fully and clearly documented, and save it in a secure location that key personnel can access, if and when they need it.

[Upcoming Webcast: Managing Communication and Change During the COVID-19 Pandemic | May 7, 2020]

Know how to reach your stakeholders.

During a time where we can’t be face-to-face, we’ve seen some organizations struggle to connect virtually with their people. Do you have email addresses for everyone? What about phone numbers? Will they be able to access those emails if they’re not at work? If not, how will you reach them?

Media is an important part of your crisis communication plan, too. While print has its place when you don’t have emails for everyone, it takes time and manual labour, and it will definitely slow things down. Research suggests text messaging might be your best and fastest option—after all, our phones are practically glued to our hands these days—but you’ll need everyone’s cell number and consent if you want to connect with them that way. Again, it’s all about planning ahead.

Get the message and tone right.

Crisis communications clearly aren’t the same as regular ongoing communications, and this is your chance to be a calming voice of reason. Be clear and reassuring, but don’t overpromise or set expectations that you won’t be able to deliver on. Put yourself in your plan members’ shoes, and focus on what they really want to know. And don’t be afraid to admit there are things you don’t know—In an environment that’s constantly changing, people will understand if you don’t have all the answers.

Rinse and repeat.

Sending out one communication isn’t enough. You’ll need to update your people on an ongoing basis—and give them a way to contact you if they have questions or need more information. True communication is an iterative cycle: send out a message, get feedback and respond based on that feedback. Asking for input also builds trust and makes people feel valued.

Coronavirus Resources for Plan Sponsors

Want to learn more about communicating in a crisis? Join our webcast Managing Communication and Change During the COVID-19 Pandemic, on Thursday, May 7 from 3:00-4:30 p.m. ET. 

Find more resources when you:

How has your organization adapted during the pandemic? Share your story.

Guest Contributor:

Alyssa Hodder

Alyssa Hodder is a Senior Communications Consultant with Eckler, Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario. With more than 16 years of industry experience, Ms. Hodder is responsible for member engagement and change management within Eckler’s communications area. She provides communications consulting support to a wide variety of clients across sectors and industries—ranging from public sector to corporate to not-for-profit—and also provides support for marketing and business development initiatives.

Benefit Communication and Technology Institute

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