Billionaire Microsoft Founder Bill Gates may have warned the world about a killer virus five years ago, but the truth is that businesses, companies and corporations are now facing a challenge like nothing the modern economic world has ever seen.

In the face of such testing times, business leaders need to navigate through unchartered territory with a few limited but crucial tools at their disposal, and one of those instruments that could help save your business is communication.

Why crisis communicating with your clients is crucial

Phoebe Netto who is the Founder and Managing Director of Pure Public Relations, an agency that employs an in-house management team to handle specialist issues, says that leaders need to make sure that any form of communication is justified.

“If not, it can do more harm than good. If the way your product or service works is going to be completely altered as a result of the crisis, then that information needs to be passed on.”

More specifically, if businesses can anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of customer questions and concerns in relation to the crisis, you’ll want to answer these as quickly as possible.

“Don’t leave room for questions and concerns – where there is potential for assumptions, questions or concerns relating to your organisation and its offering, anticipate those and address them before they are asked. Communicate quickly and often.”

There are some exceptions to this. Netto explains that if the only thing you’re communicating is that your team is now working from home and washing their hands more, then it’s probably not worth communicating. The information that businesses choose to share must have a direct impact on the clients or customers.

“Instead of simply adding to the noise, try to find ways to be a helpful advocate that can add value to your customer’s life,” says Netto.

“Don’t let silence be interpreted as your business being in trouble. Continue to provide helpful content that can educate and inform, so that when the crisis has passed, your business will be top of mind when customers are ready to buy again.”

Netto notes that these are the key crisis communication points to remember:

  • Existing messages are going to be irrelevant now, and any automated marketing needs to stop.
  • A message that might have worked three months ago can appear downright offensive today, simply because the context of how we live our lives has changed so dramatically.
  • Use your freed-up space to focus on getting your crisis communication right, and being generous in providing helpful value.
  • Remember that different stakeholders need different messages. Messages to your suppliers will be different to the messages you send to your staff, the media, investors, government and your customers.
  • Show that you are informed and confident in your response and calm in your handling of the crisis.

Consequences of neglecting effective crisis communication

Ultimately, it could damage your company’s long-term reputation and do damage to your existing and potential clients.

Miscommunication during a global crisis can cause people to focus on the negatives of how your company is mishandling the situation. This can bring unnecessary attention and scrutiny to a business’s internal management practices.

Netto notes the key risk factors to keep in mind:

  • Adding to the noise with pointless communication puts you at risk of irritating or even angering customers who might not even remember being put on your mailing list.
  • Be careful with who you’re reaching out to and avoid blanket emails with hollow messages to your entire email list that simply tell people that you’re still ‘open for business’ and ‘here for you during this difficult time’.
  • Be reassuring, not dismissive – you might be tempted to reduce panic by downplaying what is happening, but that’s being dismissive and can actually add to the fear by delegitimising people’s concerns.
  • Appearing ignorant, uninformed or naive to the situation can position you as uncaring or irresponsible.

Communication measures all businesses should undertake

The most basic crisis communication measure for businesses to take is to make it easy for customers to contact them and provide the resources to be able to have a two-way conversation.

“Responsiveness, openness and honesty are key. Your clients and customers aren’t lines on a spreadsheet: they’re real people. You should be checking in and showing you care, not necessarily because it’s going to result in a sale, but because being kind is always the right thing to do. And it so happens that goodwill is often rewarded with loyalty,” explains Netto.

Ideal length of client communication

A crisis is neither a moment for soundbites, or a moment for set-and-forget messaging.

“Your clients are along with you on this journey, so be prepared to stop in with them along every step of the way,” says Netto.

“At the same time, you don’t want to feel like you’re repeating yourself, so make sure you’re switching up your messaging where it’s possible and relevant. Your clients should never feel like they’re being harassed.”

Cost of crisis communication

Surprisingly, putting in place these practices isn’t an expensive measure, according to Netto. She says that good PR is still possible even for smaller businesses on a tight budget, and this is especially true at a time when marketing activities such as outdoor advertising will be limited.

“Remember that it’s expensive not to get your marketing and communications right. Companies spend so much money perfecting their brand, making their name known, developing a reputation, growing an audience, and crafting their story, that to not act now would simply be throwing all that money down the drain. If you’re a small company, you simply can’t afford to take that risk.

“This time should be focused on making your business prominent and well-known as generous, helpful experts. There is a greater opportunity now because your competitors are retreating in their marketing and many marketing tactics are now cheaper.”

Netto notes the most cost-effective ways businesses can communicate right now:

  • Your professional blog
  • Your website’s frequently asked questions
  • Media interviews
  • Podcasts
  • Forums
  • Articles in relevant print and online publications
  • Social media channels (LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook live videos and Instagram).
  • Past and present customers and prospects you are trying to get across the line.
  • Events such as speaking opportunities, panels and workshops.
  • Newsletters (if that has proven successful for your business).
  • Hand-written letters (they’re cost effective and add a personal connection to clients).
  • Any other types of media coverage.

Bargaining as part of crisis communication strategy

Dangling a metaphorical carrot in front of clients to keep them onside during a crisis seems like a good idea, but Netto thinks that bargaining never sets a good precedent.

“However, providing a free value-add can be important, as long as it’s not simply a badly disguised sales tactic.”

“Make sure you do this without using it as clickbait or going in for a hard sell. Everyone knows that you saying, ‘Call me for tips,’ or, ‘Call me to discuss how we could help you,’ is not-so-subtle code for, ‘I want your money and will bait you with what seems helpful only to switch into sales mode.’”

“Instead, be generous, because that’s who people want to do business with.”

Netto notes a few value-add strategies that businesses can implement:

  • Any additional services you can offer free of charge is a great way to provide added value without coming across as a salesperson.
  • Offer an adjustment to their current arrangement by removing as many barriers to entry as possible, including pausing or adjusting any ongoing memberships or payments while clients refigure their finances.
  • Consider offering something that is more essential and meets their immediate needs to encourage new clients to come on board.

Businesses that are able to pivot can get new clients in the door, even if they are only interested in lesser value offerings, according to Netto.

“Nurture these clients so they are ready to become loyal and, ultimately, increase their spend with you once economic times improve.”

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