Fresh eyes

How do I get the tone of voice right in a crisis?

Andrew Taylor Senior PR & Comms Manager

Written by Andrew Taylor,
PR & Communications Director at Freshfield

Scrolling through LinkedIn recently I saw something that caught my eye for the wrong reasons. It was a post from a company chief executive celebrating their annual results with what appeared to be lavish and expensive management booze-up.

At a time when people and communities are struggling financially during a cost of living crisis, the images of executives quaffing champagne and enjoying the spa facilities of a luxury hotel made my PR senses tingle.

The post was well-intentioned (and by all means celebrate your success) but sharing the images on social media could easily have backfired on the CEO and the company.

It was a reminder of how sensitive and self-aware businesses and their leaders need to be during difficult times. But how do you get it right? Here’s some tips.

Read the room

Before launching any campaign or posting any content during a national crisis, think about how this communication might be perceived by different groups of people. Consider the national mood and ask what possible criticisms could be levelled and whether you can comfortably answer those critics to justify your campaign. Viewing it through the lens of social media is helpful here because you can anticipate how even the harshest of online critics might react.

Try to be helpful

With people feeling a financial (not to mention emotional) squeeze, businesses need to consider how they can genuinely be of use to customers. I remember during the dark days of the first Covid lockdown getting a one-off refund payment from my car insurer because nobody could drive anywhere. It was a small gesture and one the insurance company didn’t need to make, but I remember really appreciating it.

While your business may not be able to offer direct financial support, think about what you can do to be helpful to people. It could be offering advice, helpful content, or even just listening to customer experiences and acting accordingly.

Don’t patronise

While it’s good to offer advice, you must sense check your attempts to be helpful to make sure they don’t come across as patronising. Energy company E.On learnt this when a campaign to help customers reduce energy bills drew ire because they offered customers a free pair of socks. And is the advice not to leave your TV on standby really going to be that helpful when your bills have just gone up by £1,000 in 12-months.

Get feedback from trusted sources before you hit launch

Whether it’s a focus group, advisory team, or just running your campaign messages and content by a few trusted people, it’s always worth having fresh eyes on your content. They may spot something you haven’t seen or come at it from a completely new angle you’re not aware of.

One thinks here about the backlash against the 12 football clubs that announced plans to create a new European Super League at a time when the world was in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. Better stakeholder engagement would have quickly made them realise the strength of opposition to their plan. So, while it might be tempting to just crack on, stopping a moment to think can prevent your idea falling flat.

It’s ok if you have nothing to say about an issue

In our content hungry world, I’ve often seen businesses get their comms wrong because of the clamour to say something, especially when it comes to major issues. While some businesses might need to comment, for example because of the service or sector they operate in, others simply do not and can risk saying the wrong thing entirely if they get involved. It reminded me of a phrase I once heard about communicating during times of national strife – ‘sometimes the best tone is silence’.

For more advice on how to strike the right tone with your communications, please contact Andrew or the Freshfield team.

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