How to Communicate in Crisis


In times of crisis, what do we need to do to communicate effectively to our internal and external audiences?

This was the question my friend Mignon at The Strategy Circle asked me to talk with a small group about awhile back, and it got me thinking – do we actually need to communicate differently when we’re faced with a crisis?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we don’t – we may need to change the messaging, use different platforms or alter the frequency with which we communicate, but the central tenets should still guide our communications efforts. It’s super easy to get caught up in the stress and pressure of a crisis, so I thought it might be helpful to revisit those basic underlying communications principles here.

In times of crisis, head back to basics

Communication is verbal, nonverbal, explicit, implicit – we are communicating with the world around us 24/7, whether we mean to be or not. Even not communicating with someone is sending a message. Communication is not just the words we use, but how we use them – the tone, the platform, the assumptions we make of our audience. It doesn’t matter if our audience is internal (staff, beneficiaries) or external (donors, supporters) – we should strategically approach our communications by asking the same basic questions to guide our efforts:

WHY are you communicating?

What do you want to accomplish with your communications? Some examples of your WHY could be:

  • To increase donations or supporters
  • To build trust
  • To establish thought leadership or demonstrate your knowledge
  • To set yourself apart from other organizations/share a unique approach you use
  • To share a specific message
  • To get an audience to take action
  • (or some combination of any of the above)

You should ALWAYS start with this question, as having a solid WHY behind your communication will guide all your subsequent decisions.

WHO are you communicating to?

Before you start thinking about your message, you should home in on WHO you want to communicate with to achieve your WHY.  Get granular here – for example:

  • Donors (current donors? potential donors? Institutional donors? Individual donors?)
  • Volunteers (current? Future? Longstanding volunteers who know your mission and how you work and are already champions? New volunteers just learning about your work?
  • Partners (local? International? Existing? Potential? Same thematic work or complementary?)
  • Media (online? Print? Radio? Television? Media we have existing relationships with or new?)

Getting as specific as possible in defining your audience (or audiences – you will most likely have more than one target audience for certain communications) can really help the impact of your communications. Knowing who you’re talking to helps you to tailor your message and platform to best reach the audience.

Note: I usually discourage people from defining “general public” as an audience –there’s usually a specific group that you can speak to or who would be interested in what you have to say. “When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.”

“When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one.” – Meredith Hill

WHAT message are you communicating?

After defining your why and your who, you can start to focus on WHAT your message is, and very importantly what ACTION you want them to take or what FEELING you want them to have. If you’re putting out a statement about how you’re managing a particularly challenging situation, for example, you may want your donors to trust that you have the situation under control by providing them some details about what you’re doing. You may want them to read a specific crisis management plan on your website. Or you may want to remind donors of the important work that you’re doing to support people affected by the crisis and ask them to consider donating additional funds.

Importantly, your message should be simpler than you think. Keep focused on the main thing that you want your audience to come away with. Less is more, especially in times of crisis where there is so much competing communication happening.

And remember, to really connecting with your audience you need to be human – don’t speak in jargon or platitudes. Make sure you’re adding real value to the conversation, sharing real information that your audience needs or wants.

HOW are you communicating that message?

You can share your message in a variety of ways – video, text, images, graphics. Thinking about HOW you’ll share that message with your target audience depends on 1) what they will be the most receptive to and 2) what you are most comfortable with and have the resources to carry out. While it’s great to move outside your comfort zone, and try new communications formats, in the midst of a crisis might not be the best time to do that.

You can definitely use more than one format to share the same message with different audience segments or on different platforms (we’ll talk about that next). And try and find ways to make your communications interactive – invite your audience to participate in a conversation, and you’ll connect at a deeper level than just sharing one-sided information.

WHERE are you communicating your message?

We have a tendency to jump in here, first, and start thinking about our next blog or Instagram post. Yet starting here tends to short circuit the thinking about the other important questions you want to ask yourself. If you’re only focused on one or two delivery channels, you might miss the fact that you won’t be reaching your target audience with those platforms. And, let’s face it, today we’re often having to communicate on all our different platforms in different ways to get the largest reach anyways…

First off go back to WHO you’re talking to and think about where you will best reach them. Email is often still first prize – it’s direct, personal, and more intimate than most other channels. Other places you can communicate are social media, your website, internal emails or company Wikis for policy changes, traditional media or advertising spaces.

Each of these platforms has their own pros/cons and best practices for using them, and hopefully you’re already well versed in using the ones that you use regularly – you have your email list set up, your social media profiles up and running, your media contacts in place, etc. Again, keep it simple – a time of crisis may not be the best time to try out that new social media platform…

WHEN are you communicating with your audience?

I’d hazard a guess that you should be communicating with your audiences more often than you think. You shouldn’t assume that people don’t want to hear from you, that they’re too busy to pay attention – that may be true for some, but don’t make that decision for them.

And, in times of crisis as in “normal” times, don’t wait until your message is perfect to share it. While it’s important to have thought through these different questions, sometimes it’s more important to get the message out and enter into conversations that can help you shape your future work and responses.

However, consistency is key. If you haven’t reached out on a platform or to an audience in ages, it will feel jarring to be suddenly asked for donations, for example. If you need to restart communications that’s fine but think carefully about how you do it – share some information of value first and commit to a more regular schedule before starting in on the asks.



How have you been communicating in these “challenging” times? What have you done differently than usual? Or what has stayed the same? What’s been the reaction from your audience?


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