5 Best Practices for Communicating Effectively in a Crisis

Each crisis is unique and requires a custom response, but there are 5 best practices your organization can take to prepare for crises and mitigate risk.

December 28, 2020

How to Respond to the COVID-19 Crisis

At the beginning of March 2020, 45% of people believed the coronavirus would disrupt their work lives (Forrester Research Poll). The world has changed dramatically since early March, and today that number verges on 100%.

How have you been affected by this crisis? Was your organization as prepared as possible for this pandemic? If not, how has your organization responded?

Between communicating with a remote workforce, releasing coronavirus-related memos, updating travel and health policies, tracking documents, continuing crucial training, and more, organizations across the nation are faced with a new set of challenges. A set of challenges that many were not prepared for.

You can never fully prepare for a crisis. Each one is unique and requires a custom response. But whatever the crisis, there are key steps your organization can take in advance to prepare and mitigate risk.

On April 2, 2020, PowerDMS hosted a webinar titled Crisis Communication 101, teaching 300+ compliance leaders how to prepare for and respond to a crisis. PowerDMS’ very own CEO, David DiGiacomo, and HR Director, Heather Sorenson, discussed five best practices for communicating effectively during a crisis.

As you journey through this article, they will be your guides, and Cameron, our customer marketing specialist, will be your host. Let’s get started.



1. Have a Crisis Response Plan

Cameron: David, as the CEO of PowerDMS, what advice would you give other leadership teams about preparing for a crisis?

Tips for Forming a Crisis Response Team

Designate a Leader

David: Identifying the Crisis Response Team is the number one priority. When COVID-19 started affecting the nation, Heather and I quickly brought people in from different departments to form a Crisis Response Team, one dedicated to this specific incident. A different crisis may have required a team with a different set of expertise and skills.

Though I became the designated leader for PowerDMS, the designated leader doesn’t have to be the leader or figurehead of the organization. It simply worked out that way for us this time. But Heather and I worked in close collaboration on content and strategy for releasing content to our staff.

Get the Facts

David: Heather and I worked together to create a plan. It started with gathering information. We compiled as many facts as we could, as fast as possible. We gathered info from the CDC, our local emergency response teams, and other companies within the community. Then we distributed the content to employees and, through PowerDMS, verified that they had received, reviewed, and signed-off on it.

In the middle of a crisis, time is of the essence, so getting the facts upfront lets you respond quickly. It’s so important to get the necessary health, safety, and procedural information into your employees’ hands ASAP.

Move Quickly

David: Not having all the facts can lead to paralysis, but not communicating at all is detrimental in a crisis. I recommend getting out there in front of people. Be open and honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Once you have answers, you can circle back to those topics. Consistent communication is key too. For PowerDMS, sending out monthly memos to our team has been helpful.

Keep it Simple

David: Keep outgoing messaging clear, concise, and simple. When you start to get too complex with the messaging, it’s easy for things to get lost. I recommend sticking to the 5W1H format.

We used to call it the 5 W’s—Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I know that’s been taught in a lot of crisis communication classes. It holds true in this experience as well, so identify those things upfront and talk about them

You may have to be patient with the “When” piece. Currently, we don’t know when the coronavirus will reach its peak. We don’t know when we’ll be back in the office. Let’s be open and honest while talking about the 5W’s and create touch points along the way.

Be Flexible

David: The biggest, and hardest, piece of advice is to stay flexible. This pandemic is not something we’ve seen before. This isn’t something we’ve done before. So it’s important to be flexible with your plans and willing to pivot. Be willing to admit that you weren’t moving in a direction that was in the best interest of your agency, your group, or your constituents.

Inventory Your Tools

David: Spend some time defining your audience before you plan out your messaging. To reach your audience effectively, you need to know what tools you’ll use to communicate with during a crisis. Here are some questions worth asking yourself:

  • Do you have an emergency notification system to communicate with your staff and your community?
  • Are you using email blasts to distribute information?
  • Do you have a way of communicating through a text notification system?
  • Are you using the web or putting information on your website?
  • Are you releasing broadcasts?

If you complete an inventory pre-crisis, you’ll know what modes of communication make the most sense for delivering your message when a crisis occurs.

Heather: When it comes to communication tools, the first thing PowerDMS leans towards is Slack. I don’t know if other organizations use that, but it’s a communication tool. We use it for day-to-day communication.

We started using Slack in response to this crisis. But right away we saw a problem with using it, and email for that matter, to disseminate information. Last week alone, we sent 39,608 messages in a 113-member organization. That is 12,000 more than the week before. Of those, about 10% were in public channels, 8% were in private channels, and 82% were direct messages. What I see is that people are speaking to each other, but they’re not speaking in public channels where we can see it and correct information. I don’t know what they’re saying.

Amidst those messages, our members uploaded 1,016 files. That’s 241 more than the week before. A lot of those files are work-related, but I don’t know what the rest of it is.

That’s a lot of noise, first of all, and there’s a lack of visibility so critical messages would have been lost. Right away, I was sending messages but I couldn’t tell who was seeing or reading them. Are they getting it? Do they have questions? As an HR leader, it was a concern.

We turned to our own tool, PowerDMS, and it lets us cut through that noise. We drop the information right there. There’s accountability. There’s visibility. I can see who signed off on it, who’s seen it. I can make sure critical messaging has been sent and received, and if not, I know where to push it.

PowerDMS also sends reminders and push notifications to keep people accountable. It’ll remind you until you sign the pending document.

2. Communicate Proactively With Employees

Heather: During a crisis, quick communication is critical. You can’t expect employees to come to you. You have to be proactive.

With the onslaught of information hitting us from the media, we knew right away we needed a one-stop shop for urgent information and updates. It was our own tool, PowerDMS, which we already used internally. We realized we needed to have one place where everyone could get true information.

So we created a folder, named it “COVID,” and started dropping information into it as we needed to. Some of that content included:

  • Handwashing video with a comprehension test
  • Work-from-home policy, updated as the need shifted
  • State of the Organization, with any leadership updates needing to go out to employees
  • COVID-19 Training
  • COVID-19 Toolkit for Leaders
  • Employee-assistance program contact cards

The COVID-19 Toolkit for Leaders is an example of one of our documents. And it’s more of a curated document of information. It’s a compilation of all the questions I’ve been receiving from leaders and then other proactive pieces of information. It covers a lot, and we’re adding living documents to it as we update them in the app. That way leaders can always access it to help lead their teams.

Cameron: That’s a good point, Heather. PowerDMS is especially useful if you have due dates for document signatures. It prioritizes that content to the top. So as an employee, not only do I have a single folder with everything COVID-related, but I know what’s most urgent and requires my attention.


3. Maintain Consistent Communication

Heather: We don’t recommend silence, even if there’s limited new information. In the absence of communication, people fill in their own narrative. It’s something David has said several times. If we’re not ready to respond, it’s important to let people know that we’re collecting information and we’ll notify them when we have a proper response.

Cameron: How did you know the frequency in which to touch base with staff? Is that intuitive? Is there a best practice you could suggest?

Heather: It may have been a little intuitive, but ultimately, it depends on the urgency. There’s some information you need to get out quickly. With the coronavirus, there was so much information early on, and it hit us like a wall. It was changing by the hour in some cases.

We felt like the best practice was not overloading our employees. While moving quickly is key, it’s also important to pause, take a breath, and wait until we have the best information possible.

If we schedule to release information at 5:00pm on Mondays, for example, we’ll commit to doing that with the best information we have at the moment.

We did have a situation, however, where we released a memo at 5:00pm, and then at 5:01pm Orange County [Florida] released new information that changed our message completely. We had to follow up immediately, saying we’d tweak our message and resend it later.

It’s important to set a cadence and stick to it. If you send daily messages, make sure you keep it up. And then if changes or new info slows down, you can slow down your cadence as well. Just make sure you’re communicating with your people so they know what to expect. Invite them to ask questions.

David: One thing we’ve benefited from is having flexible tools in this type of situation. Tools like Slack and PowerDMS, which are available on any device and offer push notifications on mobile, let us pivot quickly. They let us communicate with people in the way they’re accustomed to being communicated with.


4. Move Quickly

Cameron: Heather, from an HR perspective, how do you maximize efficiency without sacrificing accuracy?

Heather: Well, I think the first step is being prepared. Preparation is vital. We’re lucky at PowerDMS to have a close-knit HR and leadership team. We already collaborate closely. We’re around each other all the time, so before this crisis we didn’t have to press into some features of PowerDMS like the workflows.

Now that we’re 100% remote for the first time ever, it requires us to press into workflows and some of the other features that we didn’t use as often. It helps us move quickly. But sometimes speed can be the enemy of accuracy. Leaning into our tools lets us prioritize efficiency and make sure we’re not sacrificing accuracy for it.

Besides approval workflows, we have also set deadlines. Setting a deadline for important documents gives me reassurance that people are going to get to it quickly. If not, the app will keep reminding them about it, putting it at the top of their to-do list.

Cameron: That’s a good point. Like we discussed earlier, having the right tool for the right scenario lets you expedite the process while not sacrificing accuracy. David, as a CEO, how do you maximize efficiency?

David: Efficiency requires a proactive approach. We’ve been preparing for this scenario for years…this response plan isn’t something that just happened overnight. Getting the best information available, gathering it from the most credible sources quickly, and being aligned with your management team is the way to be efficient through this pandemic.


5. Evaluate Your Crisis Response

Cameron: A lot of growth comes from retrospection, knowing what went well and what didn’t. We learn a lot through experience. Heather, from an HR perspective, any words of wisdom on how to evaluate post-crisis?

Heather: Post-event evaluation is so important. After any event at PowerDMS, whether it’s a corporate event or an intense project, we do a retro. We’ve already started on one for this pandemic and hope the end is near.

One thing we’re doing is keeping a list of best practices and pain points. We’re keeping that in PowerDMS, so anyone with permissions can access it, edit it, and add things as we go. Here are two key things we’re asking ourselves:

  • What would we not do again?
  • What can we do better next time?

After this event, I think we’ll see a lot of guidance and feedback around what we should do if this happens again, or if there’s another round.

At PowerDMS, we plan to meet at least twice for post-event evaluation, and then build a Formal Response Team for potential future events. That team should create a standard operating procedure immediately, and it should be a living document in PowerDMS, so we can keep it updated with best practices.

Face the Unknown With Confidence

Could these five best practices prepare your organization for the unknown? Crises may be the scariest unknown an organization could face, but risk is not exclusive to pandemics.

Even outside of a crisis like this, organizational risk comes in many different forms. With federal, state, and local regulations constantly changing, as well as industry best practices, it can be challenging to communicate effectively with employees and stay in compliance. Noncompliance could lead to fines, lawsuits, loss of reputation, and more.

Are you ready to protect your organization from risk? Sign up for a free and friendly demo today using the form below.

PowerDMS is a single, unified platform for all your compliance management needs. When time is of the essence, choose the policy and training software that lets you communicate with employees efficiently and accurately. With PowerDMS, you can create, update, distribute, and track documents across their entire lifecycle. Learn how we can help you today.

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