The Summer of (Comms) Crises

It’s getting hot in here. And we’re not talking about the weather.

This summer, businesses and organizations are finding themselves in constant reaction mode due to quick-moving domestic and international developments. The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade. Repeated mass shootings. Inflation, supply chain and recessionary concerns. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine. 

It’s tempting to want to hide quietly in the shade. But research tells us that trust in institutions is at an all-time low, and people are turning to businesses for leadership on social issues. Your organization needs to carefully consider in advance when and how to speak up – before the next event forces you out of the shadows.  

As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, communicators who put forethought into their approach to difficult news fared better than those who absorbed the shock waves flat-footed. 

You need a strategy, a framework, a decision tree. Here are some questions to consider. 

What are your values? 

After the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe, organizations that delivered authentic and effective comms pointed to their value system in their messaging.  

In a message, Notre Dame University President John Jenkins acknowledged the school’s Catholic-based ideals while observing “the divisions among people of goodwill on the question of abortion.” He wrote, “I hope that today’s Supreme Court decision, which returns the question of abortion to voters and their elected representatives, will provide an occasion for sober deliberation and respectful dialogue. We must work with those who share our views and particularly with those who don’t, as we examine the profound and complex moral, legal and social questions involved.” 

What do your stakeholders care about? 

In the case of Dobbs, this question is especially tricky for companies whose employees are located in states where access to abortion remains protected and in states where it is now illegal or severely restricted, or where employee or customer populations might have vastly different political and religious opinions.   

When the sporting goods megastore Dick’s announced it would cover employees’ travel costs to seek reproductive care in another state, CEO Lauren Hobart said in a statement the company is “…making this decision so our teammates can access the same health care options, regardless of where they live, and choose what is best for them.” This commitment came on the heels of the company’s ad campaign marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of gender at colleges and universities. The takeaway: If you want to stand for something, do it in multiple, authentic ways. 

Do you have channels in place to empower your people?

In a world dominated by social media, your employees may have something to say about a polarizing news-making event. Do you have rules for employees who stake out political positions? Now is an excellent time to remind your organization about your social media policy. It might also be a good time to communicate about existing benefits, like paid volunteering days allowing employees to give their time to organizations that are important to them.

A crisis is also a great opportunity to activate your employee resource groups. You have them to build community and encourage diverse perspectives, so let them prosper in times of disruption and crisis. And open a dialogue between the C-suite, managers and employees. If you aren’t asking your people how they feel or what they need from you right now to continue performing at their best, you’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate empathy, compassion and trust. The Harvard Business Review offers a great read on Supporting Your Team When the News is Terrible

What can you meaningfully contribute to the conversation?

Many organizations made internal or public statements soon after the Dobbs decision to acknowledge the fear and concern it raised for some, and to announce new or clarify existing health benefits. Ohio-based Kroger told Insider that its employee health plan is “a comprehensive benefits package that includes quality, affordable health care and travel benefits up to $4,000” to cover reproductive health care, among other services. 

Beware: Silence also speaks volumes. In Rising Strong, Brené Brown argues that when people lack information they fill the void with assumptions. She writes: “The need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Mean making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how best to self-protect.” 

So when you decline to say anything, that’s a message too – and one you’ll have little control over. 

While your communications department isn’t the place where policy and programmatic decisions are made, it is where those decisions are shaped and delivered. That’s a heavy responsibility requiring coordination, clarity and compassion. 

Now more than ever, we’re seeing why this new kind of crisis communications planning is so important – and how those who’ve done it right are delivering in these heated times, and those who’ve done it poorly, or not at all, are sweating it. And we all know the heat will continue long past this summer.  

Need help sorting through your organization’s response plans? Reach out we’ll brave the heat together. 

by Melissa Mathews & Tia Over