Communicating During a Crisis

In a convenience retail environment, whether a crisis develops from a natural or man-made disaster, robbery, data breach, foodborne illness, social media post or a pandemic, your company’s response demonstrates its commitment to the safety, health and wellbeing of employees and customers, and helps foster positive relationships within the community.

Thoughtful Communications

Communications experts suggest the following steps in the process of crisis communications:

  1. Anticipate potential crises: What are some scenarios that you can anticipate that could affect your business?
  2. Identify the crisis communications team: What groups need to be brought together to help define your strategy?
  3. Identify and train your spokespeople: Who is the person or people who will provide comments and what are their specific areas of expertise (one spokesperson is preferable)?
  4. Establish monitoring systems: What is being said about your company in the news and on social media?
  5. Define your stakeholders and influencers: Which audiences can you engage? When should you reach out to each group and what is the specific message that will be shared?
  6. Communicate: First, offer a structured response and second, stay smart and learn what you need to know should you need to add clarity to the situation.
  7. Assess the situation: How can you adjust for the current situation and prepare for future events? It is also important to reflect and monitor results (i.e., conduct a post-mortem on your team's crisis response actions to identify opportunities for future improvements and optimizations).

communication.jpgSpecifically focusing on step 6: Communicate, communicate, communicate with authenticity and transparency. But there can be a lot of nuance in how you communicate. While a light touch in your regular communications efforts can often cut through the clutter, especially on social media, it’s a good idea to exercise caution in a crisis. Adding levity to a situation could backfire, especially when some situations are more serious than others to your audience. During a crisis, communications to customers should focus on being helpful and supportive of the community.

When a crisis occurs, Cision provides these suggestions for communicating with your customers, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example:

  1. Identify what needs to be communicated: Let customers know what you’re doing to help, such as increased cleanliness and safety protocols to protect both them and your employees.
  2. Speak to what you know: Only contribute valid and fact-based information. For example, don’t offer health and wellness advice if you are not qualified to do so.
  3. Be empathetic: Stressful times mean stressed-out customers. Be patient with their questions and show that you care.
  4. Be available: Just like your hours of operation are around the clock, news cycles and social media also are 24/7. Set up a process for social listening and monitoring any queries directed at your company. Also, responses should be in line with your internal communications policies.
  5. Be transparent: Internally and externally communicate what your company is doing to minimize the impact of the situation.
  6. Stay positive: Sharing feel-good stories offer hope and assurance during difficult times.

A component of the NACS Convenience Store Emergency Planning and Job Aids resources is a section on communicating with the media during a crisis as companies communicate store closures and re-openings. Tips include:

  1. Return media calls and requests as promptly as possible.
  2. Ask who will be interviewing you, the publication or media source (video, social media, radio, etc.) and how your information will be used.
  3. Be as open and communicative as possible. Remember that it is okay to say you don’t have an answer to a question but will find out and share information as it becomes available.
  4. Present the information in sequence and precisely, making every word count. 

Communications Tools

Author and University of Washington Professor Kathleen Fearn-Banks writes that there used to be a “golden hour” to share important information about a crisis, but with social media, there’s a “golden few minutes” in how quickly the public expects information.

“In fact, publics generally want information before it is available. The message still needs to be carefully written—mistakes on social media can live forever—but social media encourage rapid and frequent two-way communication,” Fearn-Banks writes, noting that social media can build positive relationships with the public. (Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach)

Social media allows convenience retailers to quickly communicate information to their customers, especially during a crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Facebook has been cited as the delivery method of choice for many convenience retailers to communicate with customers their coronavirus response efforts, per a NACS Retail Member Survey.

In a Convenience Corner blog post, NACS spokesperson Jeff Lenard shares that in times of uncertainty, it’s important to look at your communications through the lens of how others feel and reassure your audience that the business is putting employee and customer safety first. Also, focus external communications on how your business is helping the community by supporting first responders and healthcare workers and donating to food banks and other charitable organizations.