Illustration of two people trying to communicate during a crisis

At the beginning of 2020, the world was waking up to the first warnings of a global health threat. On Jan. 9, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a mysterious, pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China, and on Jan. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first U.S. case of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

Suddenly, hospitals across the country were facing unprecedented challenges, including higher expenses from personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical and safety supplies, record-high hospitalization rates, delayed routine medical care, and severe, ongoing financial instability. According to the American Hospital Association, hospitals and healthcare systems lost at least $323 billion in 2020 — and another $53 to $122 billion in 2021.

Yet while the COVID-19 pandemic tested the crisis preparedness of hospitals across the country, Cleveland Clinic’s crisis communication strategies served as a model for other healthcare organizations. The health system recognized the challenges coming its way and took key steps and actions to prepare itself for the virus’ surge.

Cleveland Clinic did this by:

  • Developing an Incident Command Center to serve as its central information hub.
  • Redeploying clinical caregivers to support the “front line” instead of laying them off or furloughing them — and giving them the proper online training to make sure they were prepared.
  • Establishing an online dashboard to show real-time accounting of available equipment and resources, such as PPE.
  • Incorporating transparent communication into each step of its response.

Every action Cleveland Clinic took helped it navigate the pandemic, but transparent communication may have been its secret sauce. Dr. Mark Taylor, the health system’s chair of surgical operations, said its “approach is built on full transparency of information.” That foundation provided a level of trust that allowed the organization to pivot quickly when COVID-19 became a global crisis.

7 tips for effective crisis communication strategies

The pandemic may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event (we all hope!), but it probably made you realize that your organization must be prepared to communicate quickly and effectively to your employees and the people you serve in any crisis situation.

Sticking to a response model rooted in tried-and-true crisis communication strategies — like Cleveland Clinic’s — will help you build trust in your brand and business for the future.

Let’s break it down:

1. Have a plan.

Create a detailed plan that outlines every potential crisis your organization may face and your intended response before it occurs. Make sure transparency forms the foundation of your plan and speed is woven into every step. Speed is critical because it helps reduce speculation, misinformation and possible overreactions — and, most importantly, because it helps build trust with those in your community.

According to a survey from JOTW Communications, 59% of businesses said they had a crisis communication strategy drafted in 2019, but only 45% of them said they had a documented crisis communication plan. The difference may seem subtle, but it’s important: A strategy is your over-arching ambition, but a plan sets out the tools you’ll use to achieve that ambition.

A crisis communication plan should also include the members of your crisis communication management team and your key audiences. Are you speaking to your employees, your patients, the general public? Keep your key points the same, but tailor your messaging to each individual group.

2. Always start with empathy.

An emotional event is often best met with emotion. Depending on the type of crisis, people are most likely looking for as much information as they can gather, but, because they’re human, they’re also likely seeking comfort to calm their fears. It’s important to strike the right balance between conveying a sense of urgency and not causing mass hysteria.

Let’s say there’s been a shooting at a local shopping mall and seven people were wounded. People in the community — and the wounded’s loved ones, especially — are going to be anxious to hear updates on the victims’ conditions. Be thoughtful when you communicate. Make sure you begin any communication to the public with empathy about the tragic event that occurred and your commitment to keeping them up to date with what you know. In this way, your messages will inform, not trigger.

By setting an empathetic tone at the outset, you’re acknowledging people’s concerns and expressing your understanding of those concerns. This will also help you earn trust later when you outline what you’re doing to help the victims.

3. Take ownership.

Always be as open and honest as possible. Never tell anything but the truth, and never use “no comment.” Doing so can create mistrust because it conveys secrecy and lacks candor. Using it can hurt the public’s trust in your organization — not to mention its reputation.

Rather than shying away from whatever’s going on, your organization should take ownership of what went wrong and clearly outline how it plans to fix it.

While far from a health system, KFC struck gold with its strategy in 2018 to take ownership in a crisis. When the fast-food giant was forced to shut down more than half its stores in the United Kingdom due to supply issues, it quickly apologized to customers on social media and in newspaper ads — instead of simply blaming its chicken supplier.

KFC was also transparent about the steps it planned to take to reopen stores, even providing a link to a page with all the information. These actions helped save customers’ trust in the brand.

4. Reach your audience where they are.

Engaging with the public should be a daily give-and-take, not just something trotted out in times of crisis. Regular communication with your audience is a great way to establish your organization as the go-to resource for accurate and timely health information in your community, so that when a crisis does occur, they look to you.

That said, remember your audience when you’re considering which communication channels to use. For example, if it’s an older population you’re trying to reach, you may not want to use social media. For other populations, however, social media is an often-used and important communication tool.

In fact, more than eight-in-10 U.S. adults, or 86%, say they get their news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, and just under half, or 48%, of U.S. adults say they get their news from social media. (Just remember that, when putting information out on social media, you also need to make sure someone’s monitoring your channels — to engage users, provide clarification, answer questions and counter potential misinformation.)   

A strategic mix of communication channels (like newspapers and magazines, TV and radio, and social media) will ensure you’re reaching different groups of people where they get their news.

5. Communicate the need-to-know, in a way people will easily understand.

How much you share can be something of a balancing act: Share too little and risk raising suspicions; share too much and risk raising liability for your organization — not to mention people’s fears.

Make sure you highlight the most important information and are consistent in your messaging, but understand that the nature of a crisis means that it will evolve, meaning how and what you communicate will need to evolve, too.

Also, never speculate or communicate something that isn’t accurate. Explain what you know and acknowledge what you don’t know but are working to figure out. (It can actually build your credibility to say you don’t know something!)

You should also avoid jargon — including language that even a small number of your target audience won’t understand. Consider, for example, the patient in 2014 who took the description of a “positive cancer diagnosis” to be good news, when, of course, the reverse is actually true.

Remember, too, that many members of the community may not be native English speakers, so keep diversity top of mind when crafting your messaging.

6. Stay on message.

Your message should be simple and straightforward. If the goal is to ease concern, state your message clearly at the beginning of your communication and repeat it as often as possible.

For example, thank someone for a question and then repeat your message before answering it:

“Great question. Before I answer it, though, I want to stress again that what we’re talking about right now is a worst-case scenario, and the probability of it happening is statistically very low. Now, back to your question.”

7. Rate yourself.

Once the crisis has passed, evaluate how you did. Did you communicate quickly and effectively — and with transparency? Were there any inconsistencies in your messaging? Also, did any inaccuracies get out and, if so, how quickly did you move to correct them?

Remember that even when the crisis has subsided, you shouldn’t stop communicating. Maintaining a constant give-and-take with your audience is critical. Remember, too, that you can revise and rework your crisis communication plan as needed. Treat it as a living, evolving document.

Finally, keep in mind that an organization’s response to a crisis is based on two things: what the organization says and what it does. Your crisis communication strategies can only be successful if both of these align. If they conflict, you’ll lose trust, one of the most valuable assets of any organization.

Need proof? Earlier this year, Cleveland Clinic was named one of the world’s seven most ethical healthcare providers by Ethisphere Institute. It’s earned the designation 12 years in a row.

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