Crisis Communication: Writing Like A Human In Chaos

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of us have never had to write crisis communication messages for a pandemic before. I admittedly haven’t. 

I would be the worst crisis communicator ever. I have anxiety, for one thing. I have no poker face. I sweat a lot. I am not a technical writer. I am the last person you ever want to write communications in a crisis.

Here’s the thing. I’m a business now. People rely on me. I don’t have the option to avoid communicating. 

Most of us don’t. In fact, I believe that everyone – consultants, vendors, HR leaders, recruiters, etc. – should be thinking about how we talk to people right now. We can do a lot of good by having interactions that are filled with small acts of empathy, kindness, and compassion. 

I also know there’s not a ton we can control as far as policies, procedures, or customers. Hell, we can’t control anything. I get it.

Even in these frustrating, head-shaking moments, I think there’s an opportunity. We can be the ones to coach our companies – from leadership to team leads and marketing – on how to create messages that are considerate of where people are today. 

Look, I don’t know every scenario. I know you’re writing and communicating things you never imagined creating. HR leaders are doing hard work and sharing tough messages. Businesses are trying to figure out a survival strategy. Hell, everyone is just trying to survive. 

That’s precisely why what you say now, and how you write it, matters more than ever.

How To Make Your Crisis Communication More Human

When you sit down to write to anyone right now, there are 3 things I want you to address – in each message you write, and over the coming weeks as the situation evolves. 

  1. Phase 1: Shock. Never in my life have I experienced such a universal emotion. People around the world are experiencing fear and grief at the same time. Fear of what’s to come. The agony of losing their everyday way of life. That’s not small or something to be ignored. You must communicate with empathy. Find small ways we can be kind and compassionate to anyone you interact with right now. Let me very blunt about this: Stop the pitches. It’s embarrassing. Unfortunately, I’m confident all of us could open our inboxes and find a few examples of people who skipped this step entirely. 
  2. Phase 2: Stories. The next time you reach out, the language has to be personal. You. Me. Us. We. When all this starts to settle down, people aren’t going to react to jargon and corporate communications lingo. At that point, I imagine everyone will be so overwhelmed with news and headlines. You can stand out by being the human voice. Your messages must come from people to be heard and to build trust at this critical moment. No matter what you’re selling – a membership, a job, convincing people to stay – you can’t be successful without trust. 
  3. Phase 3: Recovery. Now, and only at this step, is it possible for you to offer advice or convince anyone to do anything. Most marketers are getting communications all wrong by jumping to this last step, which is why we all feel like we need a shower after reading some of these emails this week. Right now, we’re all waiting to see what happens. What’s next, and your paid service/role/benefit/tool/etc. should come after it’s well thought out and ready to be rolled out to your team. As for HR, I think this is so important – tell people what’s next when you know. Be detailed. Stop and ask, “What would I want to know right now?” Write that down. 

Show empathy. Be human. Be helpful. 

You’re in uncharted territory.

Give yourself a little grace. “Right” is entirely unknown. Crisis communication is not easy. You’re doing the best you can. I’m here to help if you need me in any way. 

I made this offer in my weekly letter, and I’ll post it here too. I’m opening my calendar for conversations. If you just need to talk, if you need help with writing a message, whatever.  Just reserve a time that works on my calendar here.  

You’re not alone. 

Shoutout to my friends, Gina Alioto and Ben Eubanks, for the inspiration behind this post. You both reminded me that I could help in some way when all I want to do is hide. I appreciate it more than you know. 

4 thoughts on “Crisis Communication: Writing Like A Human In Chaos

  1. Thank you a million times. For the first time in days I let myself take a breath and find a moment of peace.

  2. I would say, again, communicators would benefit from watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily updates on CNN. He has done a masterful job of presenting facts, outlining actions, detailing needs, and, lastly. inspiring people. He is an accomplished communicator who has shown great leadership via his messages and actions.

  3. Thank you so much for the article. Sometimes in the need to write a professional, technical, well-worded and accurate communication, we forget to also write something that an actual human being – the audience that you are writing for – will connect with.

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