Crisis communications in times of the COVID-19 pandemic

Knowing what to say, or not to say, and to whom. And when…

These are the underlying principles of any communications, PR or marketing endeavour. Such principles are more poignant when it comes to communicate in times of crisis and emergencies, like the one we are living through.

Many a time, leaders think that their organisation has to say something and immediately once a crisis hits. And that is probably right. But effective crisis communications has to take into account a pre-planned process of how to handle communications and ensure that the flow of words and statements is commensurate to the way the crisis is unfolding. Crisis communication is a discipline with clear principles and one that needs lots of thought and practice.

Clearly and undoubtedly, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic — more commonly referred as the Novel Coronavirus — is developing in ways which we never thought could be possible. It has taken the world by surprise. Not that the epidemic itself was a surprise, as history shows us that such outbreaks occur on a regular basis throughout time and in various parts of the world. Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu — just to name a few, and going back in time epidemics such as the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and Cholera were, and in certain countries still are, notable killers.

“What was surprising was the way
COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe
almost out of nothing.”

What was surprising was the way COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe almost out of nothing. It propagated particularly in the developed world and thus has altered the way we live, commute, purchase, socialise and communicate.

In such a crisis, we have seen leaders from all aspects of life — governments, businesses, NGOs, schools, religious organisations and families— often grapple with the way they communicate and what they say in times of crisis, as the crisis itself and the responses to it constantly evolve. Many compare COVID-19 to modern-day terrorism, and that is not a bad comparison, especially when one considers the fear-factor and panic the virus has instilled in millions of people around the world.

When approaching any crisis communication, but especially one that is evolving like COVID-19, there are some key principles which ought to be top of mind, namely:


Ensure that you are basing your communication decisions on credible data, facts and sources. In a world of fake and fast news, where social media propagates a message faster that the virus itself, one has to be mindful of basing decisions on the advice of professionals as well as people and organisations with credentials and a reputable track record.

Stating a fact as a fact

Honesty is the basis of trust. Many crisis communications exercises faltered because facts were not disclosed properly, or were altered intentionally to hide the real story

Pace of Communication

The first 15 minutes of a crisis are critical and any organisation has to endeveour to state what it knows up till that moment. That is called “owning the message”, thus quelling rumours or distorted news, whilst being truthful. As details become clearer and the impact is assessed, more frequent communications (known as the subsequent hour communications) are required. Saying sorry and reaching out to the impacted people with an apology is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary it demonstrates the humanity and sensitivity of any organisation in such trying moments.

Mapping your stakeholders

You need to know who you are talking to. In the case of the COVID-19, the whole world is the audience. However, there are multiple stakeholders that need to be managed during a crisis. These include the authorities, regulators, impacted people or clients, your employees, shareholders, wider communities, interest groups, NGOs and others. The message ought to be consistent but adapted according to the needs of your stakeholder.

Action-oriented messaging

Communicating for the sake of communicating will make your audiences feel cynical about what you are doing. Ensure that in a crisis, when you are saying something that has substance and is action-oriented. For example, informing the public of the latest developments of a crisis, and making public the decision you or your organisation have taken, and telling people what they should do in line with that decision. All this is action-oriented communication.

Practice, practice, practice

Like any contingency scenario, crisis communication needs to be practiced using real-life situations and scenarios and also via desktop exercises and simulations with the key stakeholders in your organisation.

Finally — trust the experts in the field of crisis communications. Simply running a Google search on crisis communication will just be scratching the surface. Seeking the knowledge and insight of subject matter experts, like seasoned communication professionals and agencies, will help you develop your crisis communication strategy and achieve your desired outcomes.