Werbewoche.ch: Ms. Ernst, the current crisis requires a rethink in all areas. For companies in particular, the way they communicate has changed a great deal. In your opinion, how should the way of communicating be done in such times?
Miriam Ernst: In such special situations, companies should align their communication sensitively, positively and encouragingly. Instead, companies should highlight opportunities created by the challenge, convey a feeling of belonging together - for example, with hashtags such as #wirbleibenzuhause. It is important that companies communicate credibly and remain true to themselves.
Were there any particular challenges, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, that companies had to face in terms of communication?
In the case of the current pandemic, the biggest challenge was that nothing like this had ever happened before, so no one had a roadmap for a pandemic situation. Users had a lot of unanswered questions like "When and how do we move forward?" and the community managers didn't have the answers.
How should companies best approach communications in such unusual circumstances as the current Corona crisis?
When it comes to communication, timing plays a very crucial role. When it comes to communicating negative content, i.e. impact, it is very important to resort to factual, clear and active communication. It is also particularly important to be the first voice on the market, if possible, so that the spread of fake news and rumors does not stand a chance in the first place. In particular, the topic should not simply be ignored, but companies should use the situation to strengthen the community through active involvement.
Negative facts should not be in the foreground for too long; instead, positive future plans, opportunities and possible solutions must be communicated to the community. In the Corona example, new paths can be created via digital events such as digital wine and beer tastings.
What can companies do in concrete terms to be prepared for future crises? What internal measures can companies take in advance in terms of communication?
In Europe, no one expected such a risk. Nevertheless, it has been shown that companies that have prepared for general crises were clearly at an advantage. As a matter of principle, every company should create crisis scenarios and define clear steps in communication for this purpose: Who is allowed to communicate, how is communication done, and what approval processes are needed?
I always define communication and social media policies for new customers. On the one hand, these motivate employees to be active on social media themselves, but on the other hand, they also clearly define that their statements must be kept separate from those of the company.
It is also important that information in times of crisis should only come from the official company account. This is important so that the company positions itself clearly and uniformly. The approval processes in crisis communication often take a very long time. Here, too, work should be done as early as possible on a concept that makes it possible to react more quickly. On social media in particular, it's not days that count, but minutes. In addition, it helps to prepare general statements that then only need to be minimally adapted in the specific case.
What I consider particularly useful and effective is that at the beginning of a crisis, all the questions that arise from the community are collected and pre-formulated text blocks are created. The community managers can then act quickly and relatively freely.
Social media are of particular importance in times of corona crisis communication. Why are these channels particularly suitable for crisis communication?
Social media is an integral part of many people's daily lives, thus it is the medium where companies can reach their community the fastest without having to rely on the press. This has both advantages and disadvantages: social media is a fast-moving medium where you should also be prepared for negative feedback and reactions. At the same time, social media also offers the opportunity to strengthen communities, especially in times of crisis. With playful, creative and also emotional content ideas, you can make a statement and strengthen the community's bond with your brand.
Which social media platforms can you recommend specifically for communication in times of crisis?
The same rules apply here as in every type of communication: The channels on which I reach the right target group are relevant. In all-encompassing crises, as in the Corona case, every medium the company uses is relevant. If I am a B2B company and communicate daily with my target audience on LinkedIn, that is also my channel to communicate opinions, goals, facts and news in times of crisis. If I'm a fashion company and I'm targeting more of a young audience, then Instagram or even TikTok may be the better channel. Of course, you have to communicate differently on each medium. So you shouldn't play the same message from TikTok on LinkedIn. (laughs)
Can you name content formats that are specifically suited for crisis communication?
Basically, video runs better on all platforms. Still, if I as a company can't get the information across in a video, then I should choose a different format. Maybe my creative department is more successful in creating an image that expresses the situation more appropriately than a text from our press department. Any format can be used, the implementation is much more crucial there!
Opportunities can also arise from a crisis. How have companies succeeded so far in implementing them positively? And how can well-implemented communication serve to strengthen companies in times of crisis?
For years, many companies have either foregone digitization strategies or have always pushed them into the future. Some companies, such as Steinbeis SMI University, have digitized their entire offline program within two weeks, opening up opportunities for the "new normal" to include more students who can't always attend on-site. Other companies have built a new digital business or reoriented themselves and shown that they are agile enough to react quickly in times of crisis. A great example is also Harpers Bazaar. The magazine launched an issue completely without photo shoots and replaced the shoots with illustrations. This statement boosted sales of the magazine enormously.
We learn that it is good not to rely on just one line of business, but to continuously move with the times and seize new opportunities. And ideally, before the crisis forces you to do so.
Which companies do you think have a particularly successful social media presence in times of the pandemic?
In my opinion, three companies have done particularly well: on the one hand Coca-Colawho understood right at the beginning that it is important to make clear statements. On the other hand Jägermeister, who managed to spread positivity and actively support through their Instagram channel, but also provided the community with little tips and messages to enjoy the time at home. Then there is Iceland tourism, responding to people's frustration and offering it a way out with charming humor.
How can a procedure be designed for communication in the event of a crisis?
Before the crisis, a social media guideline should generally be created and shared with employees. In addition, a quick way to release responses in times of crisis should be defined.
At the beginning of the crisis, you have to define clear statements that cannot be misinterpreted, as the Coca-Cola example shows. These statements can be tested well on a small group to learn from the reactions before they are published. Furthermore, all questions should be answered. If they cannot be answered, then a time frame should be set. An answer catalog that community managers can use freely also supports. If commonalities can be found, these should be appealed to, for example, through a suitable campaign.
During the crisis, ways should be found to lighten and ease the crisis. If possible, humor can also be incorporated. At the same time, do not dwell too long on the topic, but rather define new ways and goals.
After the crisis, an evaluation should be made: What went well, what didn't? Where can we improve in the future? What do we learn from the crisis? If a mistake has been made, address it clearly and don't talk your way out of it.
What can companies implement directly now to be prepared for crises in the future?
On the one hand, learn from the mistakes and good examples of other companies. On the other hand, be open to change management in the company, actively react to change, changes and crises, integrate solution ideas and new developments in the company. If you do not currently have a policy and crisis process, you should set one up now at the latest and plan for the future how the company should react in times of crisis.
Miriam Ernst is founder of Miriam Ernst Consulting, a marketing & communications consultancy with a focus on marketing strategy, digital marketing, social media and PR.