How to communicate in a humane way during a global crisis

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For the last two years, almost every single person on this planet has been receiving, reading, hearing, and following different types and levels of crisis communications – coming from the government, employers, companies, clients, friends, and family, through mobile screens, radio, television, street ads, paper flyers.

Just as the world was looking forward to a break to catch its breath, the war in Ukraine has pushed us into yet another massive crisis that is taking a toll on all of us. Channels that were full of the COVID-19 pandemic are now covering all aspects of the war.

As both individuals and organizations, it seems almost impossible to know what can be said, how it can be said, and where it could be said.

Here are a few practical tips for companies on how to communicate with your audience during a big humanitarian crisis.


Saying nothing for a while is more than OK


For a while, we were all in shock about Russia attacking Ukraine. For your company’s social media channels going quiet for the time being is more than OK. For an individual running your own channels, doing any communications might have seemed like the most hypocritical thing to do.

So don’t worry – for you to gather your thoughts as a company is better than posting something that might be misunderstood as insensitive or even outrageous. With all media channels being flooded with real-time imagery from the war zone, it’s anyway close to impossible to get your audience to even see your messages.


Gather insights from all departments of your company on how this is affecting your customers, and inevitably, you

To understand the whole picture of how a sudden crisis can affect your clients, and inevitably, your business, it’s good to call the whole team together to discuss the full impact of the world’s events.

Make a list of things you can help them with and what you can’t. Based on the list, make an action plan on how you can reach out to your clients and other stakeholders and assist them in the best way possible.


How you can help without sounding like you are taking advantage of the situation

The first instinct for every decent human being is: what can I do? How can I help?

As we’ve seen, hundreds or thousands of companies have taken a stance in support of Ukraine. These actions vary from closing shops in Russia to donating money through a trusted NGO. And of course you would like your audience to know that your organization is stepping in to help people in need. But, the risk that many are worried about is how to sound genuine and not sound like you are taking advantage of a terrible situation.

Some key points in creating comms about helping the victims of a big crisis:

    1. DO NOT SELL ANYTHING. Don’t make this into a sales campaign. It might sound like a no-brainer, but we have all seen “If you buy X, we will donate Y to charity” campaigns. Just don’t do it.
    2. Help together with others and through well-recognized charities. The most neutral thing is to donate money. The more you can gather with a group of similar companies, the better. Use a trusted partner to handle your donation. When you communicate about this, make sure you also share links for individuals or organizations reading your post to donate, as well. That way, you maximize your own donation. 
    3. Communicate other ways of helping in a way that is genuine. Are you a company that could provide work for refugees so that they can have meaningful things to do? Do you have a big office – can you offer a free coworking space? Can your app help refugees? All these are great initiatives, but you must be very clear about what is offered and against what. These messages can easily be turned into exploitation schemes, so make sure you open up all aspects of the help you offer.
    4. Be humane. Hundreds of thousands of people are affected by the crisis. You can’t be too empathetic. Concentrate on listening rather than telling. Have more channels open for discussion than for bombarding people with your one-sided message. 
    5. Double-check your messaging with someone outside the core team. Even the best of intentions can be misinterpreted. Have someone a bit outside the main comms team circle read your comms assets before sharing them publicly to ensure that anyone reading it can understand the core message.

Before you do any external comms, make sure that you have reached out to everyone internally. Internal comms can be even more vital than external comms in the eye of the storm. Some of your colleagues might have family or friends trapped in war zones. Someone might be a refugee from their own country’s war, and this might bring back awful memories.

And as said – most likely all your employees are tired to some extent about the ongoing crisis. Make sure you communicate about the potential occupational health assistance that people can use to get support for their mental health; book 1-1 meetings with your team if they seem distressed; gather together to talk about the effects and possible aftermath of the crisis. 

There isn’t a winning strategy or one correct way to handle company comms during crises, but being humane should take you a long way.

Reetta Ilo is the Head of Startups at San Francisco Agency. She is a qualified startup ecosystem enthusiast and dog mother extraordinaire. She has been doomscrolling Twitter for the past weeks and also feels anxious about world events. 

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