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Q&A: Communicating in times of crisis

Paul Westerink

Apr 6, 2020

Did you miss our live webinar and panel discussion about the topic: Communicating in times of crisis? Or do you simply want to learn more about crisis communication? No problem! The speaker and CEO of PRlabMatías Rodsevich, answered all questions asked during the session in this blog. Want to see the recording of the webinar and panel discussion? Find it here!

What are your thoughts on handling general internal comms from the international headquarter to all employees, versus internal comms from the local country organisations to the local employees? Might this be conflicting?

For companies that have international and local communications, it is important to organize the content at both global and local levels so it does not become mixed up. Some information is relevant at one level but not another so you need to set up a system to manage and filter the information flow. The important thing to convey is relevancy and precision. This is why employing regional and local administrators are necessary to direct the content flow to the right employees.

When do you ignore complaints on Social Media and when do you take action? We sometimes see certain people that continue to complain via the social channels which affects our image.

Some complaints are categorized more as hate comments rather than constructive feedback. While feedback and sincere complaints should be approached with a responsive action, the more ‘hateful’ complaints can still be acknowledged. Many companies will say things like, “Sorry to hear that,” and then provide a suggestion like a customer service chat on what they can do for the customer or offering a discount code, essentially some sort of reprise to appease the customer. This way you’re able to show that you still acknowledge all customers and respect their complaints. This is always better than not saying anything at all, ignoring such complaints can foster an even worse flow of negative comments. 

How do you prepare for crisis scenarios within the tech industry?

Case studies are very google examples of concrete crisis scenarios; we can learn from how they managed it.

For tech companies, data breaching and hacking is a common scenario and you must know how to prepare for it. For example, Equifax discovered a massive data breach in July of 2017 that leaked SSN and driver license info for nearly half of the American population. A plan would help prepare ahead of time for how you should work together, what steps to take, and what initial message to release and when.

Another example to be wary of, being in the tech industry, is an IT outage. Southwest Airlines was a classic example of this in summer of 2016 when their website and other key systems were down for more than 12 hours in peak travel season. They turned to social media to continue responding to customers but even social media outages can happen. Having a backup system to rely on but also having apologies and announcements ready for remedy are good preparations to have.

Do you have any additional advice as to how to make PR expertise count in an environment where PR might be not be prioritized by the final decision-makers?

Final decision-makers may prioritize finances for a short-term bounceback, but they should still have the same goals for the company as the PR team would, which includes putting employees first or managing your reputation first. 

After the 2008 financial crisis, there were many problems that followed for companies that tried to bounce back into business mode. They prioritized short-term shareholder interests, which did not create sustainable value as their incentives were clouded from financial reasons and could’ve even destroyed economic and social value. Good PR expertise will counsel the decision-makers towards long-term growth.

Should we respond to journalists contacting us for a statement about how corona has impacted our business?

Practicing PR in times of crisis is good for your business. Journalists want to know your take and input by having you share the impact on your organisation. You can not pretend the crisis is not happening but be mindful of the facts and the emotions. Know that many others around are going through the same crisis and dealing with the impact on their lives and businesses. I encourage you to empathize with them and show vulnerability in admitting your own impacts; it shows humanity and no one is going to judge you because most companies are struggling right now, it’s nothing personal.

What are the opportunities you foresee for PR professionals in a post-pandemic world? Which industries will gain more relevance/traction?

Digital media has increased as people spend more time at home, leaving them less ways to consume in person. Opportunities for PR in a post-pandemic world are amidst social networks that may have strengthened, video services and advertising, and media platforms for content. Clearly, the supply chain has the most immediate business impact and subsequently companies that heavily rely on supply chains for their business will suffer especially since global media ads will not be as effective. This pandemic only reveals the industries that are essential to our society’s function and that includes the need for 5G technology and other remote interactions.

What about fake news these days? Who could be your allies in this case?

Fake news is much more prevalent nowadays, especially with the rise in social media. Your allies lie in the sources and credibility. You can check the mission statement of the story site or the credibility and validity of the story’s author. Make sure to check the external sources, the date of the original story, and other primary sources such as quotes or press release documents

What is your perception about the role of PR after the corona crisis?

The role of PR during the corona crisis has been great, seeing all the big companies donating what they can to contribute to different communities of need. After the crisis, these PR actions should be sustained as to show it was not just merely a PR gesture during a global crisis. The role of PR during the crisis determines how people remember your company after the crisis. If anything we learned from this crisis is how to behave and be transparent. That will indefinitely be carried forward after the corona crisis in the hands of the PR team, communication. 

What do you do if your CEO already communicates to the press before you send out the official communication? Do you adjust or stay consistent and adapt the official communication? Even if the information is incorrect? 

This depends on the type of material and communication released. You obviously don’t want to harm the CEO’s image by correcting them but you also wouldn’t want to harm the CEO’s image by letting them support an incorrect statement. It’s better to adjust as necessary in a humble and non-aggressive way. Information and situations are always changing so if approached genuinely, you should embrace the opportunity to make adjustments to statements if needed. It’s important though to make sure he/she understands your role and double checks with you before communicating with the press. Try to get them on your side by getting them to understand that you’re not a burden but you’re there to protect the company’s reputation and you can bring a strong understanding of how to deal with the press to the table. 

What different perspectives or insights, if any, apply to public institutions in relation to private companies in front of a crisis? 

Public institution or private company, you will need to restructure different areas of the administration. Public institutions may deal more with the redesign process including efficiency, transparency, and quality while private companies are dealing with government, lawyers, brand image, and employees and unions. Mainly, the insight to keep in mind for public institutions is to define a vision and strategy for the institution so as not to lead to depreciation of authority from its constituents. 

Is there a difference in B2B and B2C comms during a crisis?

Social media as communication crisis strategy works across the board for B2B and B2C companies as well as other communication mentalities that are grounded in showing empathy and action. B2B and B2C companies alike should engage in a more service over sales approach. This means companies that are used to selling products should divert some energy to providing relief services or the best aid possible they can afford. Crisis management may look different in B2B and B2C in small variance among the normal products and services offered but overall there is no distinguishing B2B and B2C in a crisis; people just come together to help.

Shall the crisis comm ‘war room’ make decisions on the communications for all departments/HQ’s around the world if we are talking about a Multinational?

Yes, definitely. The more centralized the messaging the better. Although in the case of a multinational company,  it’s important to have the global managers of teams present who will cascade down and adapt the messaging to local markets. 

How can I make clear to the CEO’s that the crisis is a theme that is for the communication department. I noticed that a lot of these actions are given to HR. And they struggle a lot.  

You can let the CEO know that internal crisis can be allotted to HR with no problem, but other communication crisis’ should be handled by those in the actual communication department. As long as you are distinguishing the clear differences and categories that HR vs. Communication handles, it will be better understood that there is a place and a job for every department.

Bringing physical together with the leadership team might be an additional risk in times of crisis. What are your experiences regarding splitting up?

I think not much has changed as long as everyone is open to the idea of digitization. What you are referring to is basically a war room with your leadership team. Keep in mind the concept: bringing in the most important people all in one space to tackle the crisis, align on the messaging, deciding how to cascade it down to the company. You don’t need to be locked up in a room putting ourselves at risk to do this. It is easily replicated online, so there shouldn’t really be any difficulties.

What’s your point of view on how EU institutions have been handling the COVID-19 crisis?

I think that EU institutions have been handling the COVID situation to the best of their ability. No one was really prepared to deal with a pandemic, let alone one the size of COVID. So as everyone looks to bandage the situation, I look to see the adaptations institutions make for the future. Sometimes, that’s how it goes with crisis communication. If we are unprepared for a crisis, we just need to learn from it and decide what we did right and what we did wrong.   

How do you deal with having different comms decision makers across different HQ’s?How can you draw on efficiency if there are different comms decisions makers between different HQs who can affect your work  (e.g. when you work at EMEA but Global HQ and APAC is involved too)

It can be super frustrating to have conflicting communication coming from two different decision makers. Typically in crisis communication, we like to have a process to define what to say and who is going to say it. But like I said, no one was prepared for this. So everyone is kind of acting on the fly. What I would recommend is schedule an online meeting with both/all parties involved, so everyone is there to discuss it. Sometimes emails just don’t work in getting your message across. So it’s important to have everyone, face to face, to ask what they want to be communicated. It’s also important to adapt the messaging to local markets, so you might want to consider adapting the messaging to global HQ to where you are, backing it up with relevant data to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. That way instead of being told two different things, you are mediating the situation and allowing them to come to an agreement on what the proper communication is. 

I work for an animal welfare charity. A part of our messaging consists of highlighting the source of the corona crisis. Should we use the current crisis as an opportunity to push our message, or rather refrain and reflect after this crisis?

I think this is super tricky right? There are certain industries and companies that are having huge profits from COVID, but everyone is steering putting this in the public eye. That’s why you see edtech platforms giving discounts or becoming free to use during this time. I would say that the message does have it’s timing, but that time is not now. It is far too ingrained in everyone’s mind and the threat is still too real. So I would wait a bit to send the message and monitor the situation. 

When things start to clear up and there is an end in sight to the pandemic, then it might be the right time by framing it as “looking back” and in order to prevent such a situation from happening again, this whole thing would have not happened if it wasn’t’ for animal meat consumption.

About our speaker


Matías has +7 years of vast PR & Marketing experience in B2B, B2C, technology and product communications across corporate, startup and agency environments. He is specialized in B2B & B2C Tech PR. Now he works as CEO & Founder of PRlab, an integrated marketing agency specialized in Scaleups and the design industry.

Want to know how Meltwater can help you with your crisis communication? Fill in the form below and our consultants will get in touch with you as soon as possible. You can also watch the entire webinar and panel discussion via this link.