Crisis Communications: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Information is changing every day as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold. Association members – whether they’re individuals or businesses and organizations – are looking for a trusted source they can turn to for accurate information that will help them minimize the impact of this crisis on their livelihoods.

Associations can demonstrate their value at this critical time – but they must get the messaging right. Here are key tips to keep in mind:

Acknowledge this isn’t business as usual.

In the days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, you likely received emails from every organization that you’ve ever provided your email address to – and for good reason. Nothing about COVID-19 is business as usual; let your members know how your organization is adapting. This could mean letting members know your staff is working remotely, office hours have changed, or in-person events are canceled. As everyone scrambles to adjust, you need to communicate the steps you’re taking and set expectations for how the organization is adapting. This will likely require multiple messages as the situation continues to evolve.

Be transparent.

Members will ask questions. Address the ones you can, and be transparent about what you don’t know now or are researching. Let them know you share their concerns and are working on their behalf – even if you don’t have all the answers.

Be factual.

There is a massive amount of information about COVID-19 online – and not all of it is legitimate. Before pushing information out to your members, make sure you’re verifying the source and cross-checking the information with multiple sources. Take the time to get the information correct.

Be laser-focused on what matters most.

Don’t waste time and resources aggregating information that isn’t pertinent to your members; focus on what impacts your members. As you communicate, keep Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind. Understand which tier your members are most concerned with. If your group is a medical society, they may be most concerned with physiological needs – protective gear, keeping themselves and their loved ones healthy. For other groups, members may be more worried about safety and security —keeping their jobs or businesses in an uncertain economic environment.

As you communicate, keep these basic needs in mind. Address them and do your best to postpone other topics so you don’t come across as tone-deaf.

Assess all planned communications.

Pause any non-essential communications. If you use tools to pre-schedule social media posts, make sure you’ve canceled any scheduled communications that don’t address members’ immediate needs.

Weigh event communications carefully.

Many events in the near-term have already been canceled or moved to a virtual format. But for those events that are further out – six months to a year – communications need to be carefully crafted. Most people aren’t considering non-essential travel right now; people don’t know when life will get back to normal. Opening conference registration may be especially tricky. Acknowledge the elephant in the room; understand that your traditional conference messaging may not resonate. Weigh empathy with event promotion; help your potential attendees understand how you’re addressing the COVID-19 crisis and how your event will adapt to this new reality. Do not make mention of canceling the event unless you’ve already made the decision to do so.

Declare the end of your own crisis.

When the crisis comes to an end – as all crises do – staff and leadership should communicate on when the organization is moving back to other business. This won’t be the same for every organization. Construction groups, for one, may feel the impact longer as clients shake off their economic uncertainty and start to build again. Further lobbying may be required for government aid in the transition back to normalcy. Evaluate your own situation based solely on your members’ needs, not when governments or other industries say the crisis is over.

Additional tips:

  • Do communicate often. Consider numbering or dating your COVID-19 updates so it’s clear which information is the most up-to-date.
  • Do simplify the information you send. People are inundated with information; highlight the most critical information and try to use bite-sized chunks when possible. Consider a “top 3” list of the latest information pertinent to them.
  • Do consider all your communications avenues. Think beyond email blasts about all the possible touch-points you available communicate key updates—website homepages, app notifications, social media channels, text messaging, phone calls. Not every medium will be appropriate but understand the ecosystem available to you to get information out.
  • Do look for opportunities to give back. Members may be looking for an opportunity to use their talents and resources to help those in need during this time; this is a great rallying call for associations to make a difference.
  • Do NOT assume you have to have all the answers. Link to other organizations who have applicable resources, and facilitate ways for members to share best practices with each other.
  • Do NOT politicize information. Remember, your members are not a homogeneous group. While some may be unaffected, others may be battling the illness or dealing with economic ramifications. Stick to facts when reporting information and avoid inserting opinion.

As your organization communicates about COVID-19, keep member needs at the forefront. By serving as a clearinghouse of important information, you are filling a critical need in helping them adapt to and recover from this crisis.