COVID-19 Resources

Strike the Right Tone When Communicating in a Crisis

By Sarah Sain, CAE • March 19, 2020


I’ve seen that word used a lot lately when referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an accurate description; after all, many of us have never lived and worked in times quite like these. And while uncertainty is a fact of life in the best of times – none of us truly knows what will happen in the future – those feelings do become heightened in this particular moment.

This moment is also one in which associations will be more important than ever to their professional communities. The leadership, continuing education and connection that associations offer must continue through reliable communications and relevant content.

In these times of worry and disruption, members are looking to their associations for accurate, thoughtful guidance on how to proceed in both the short and long term. Many of the associations that Naylor works with pride themselves on being the “voice of the industry,” and now is the time to use that voice to help people stay connected and ensure businesses remain ready to serve their customers.

Here are some of the things your association should consider as you look to keep your members informed throughout this crisis.

Focus on the Facts

At all times, but in particular when we’re facing a crisis, there is an increased need to make sure the information you’re sharing is current and based in fact. It’s too easy for rumors run rampant, and misinformation and false narratives can spread fast. Associations are a trusted source of industry news, which puts you in a position to ensure that your audience is getting the information they need most.

Your members are looking to you to address how this crisis is going to affect the industries in which they work and the future of the world around them. Only share content from reliable sources and be transparent about where you’re getting your information. This is particularly important on social media – it’s easy to post or retweet information that is unverified or based in hearsay or opinion.

Communicate Frequently and Consistently

To date, most associations have already sent out the most critical information related to cancellations and postponements of upcoming events, office closures and remote work that will affect how members can reach staff. That’s just the first step. That vital, timely information should continue to be released in the days, weeks and months to come. Tell your members what you can, as soon as you can, and then keep in touch at regular intervals with updates and reminders. While we are always aware of the challenge associations face with cutting through the clutter, in a crisis situation you cannot overcommunicate.

On the other hand, you also have to start thinking strategically about what content your members will need as this crisis continues. You want to create a communications strategy that is proactive, not just reactive. Whitepapers, educational resources and handouts, sample templates for plans and policies, editorial content from your publications – now is the time to promote all of your most relevant content that can offer actionable ideas. This includes new content you’ll create in the midst of this crisis, as well as past content that is still applicable.

Use All the Tools You Have

Most associations have a variety of channels that they use to share different types of messages and communicate with different audiences, and you should be utilizing every single one of them right now. Your association website is probably the most important communications channel you have at your disposal. It’s important to note, important updates related to the coronavirus crisis should be front and center on your homepage – don’t make your members look for what they need. Your other digital communication channels – email, social media and e-newsletters – can also be used to get information out quickly.

With so many employees shifting to remote work, your members are in a better position to consume content virtually, meaning now may be the right time to try out a new platform – podcasts, video and online communities where members can lean on each other are growing by leaps and bounds.

Associations that have a career center or job board need to utilize their platforms to help companies and potential employees connect quicker than ever. This is a way to provide encouragement and support for your members who find themselves under new working conditions. Many are working from home (often with other family members and children present) for the first time or putting in long hours in an attempt to conduct business as normally as possible, while others face reduced hours or, in the worst case, a potential layoff or hiring freeze.

Finally, while digital is vital to your communications strategy, don’t downplay your more traditional channels like your print magazine as a way to provide in-depth analyses of how the crisis could affect your industry and tell your members’ stories through interviews and Q&As.

Be Honest and Authentic

It’s more important than ever that your message strike the right tone for the situation. We could all use a laugh right now, but make sure it’s in line with the context of the messaging. You don’t want to come off as glib or belittle the severity of the moment we’re all facing. Balance humor with seriousness depending on the content and channel you’re sharing. By accepting the gravity of the crisis we’re facing, your association has an opportunity to calm worries and be a voice of reason.

It’s also OK to admit that you’re not always going to have all the answers right away, and no one knows what will happen one week, one month or one year down the line. Everyone is doing their best to adapt to what is happening from day to day. Currently with COVID-19, changes are happening rapidly. Now is the time to make your content and resources available to everyone who could use it the most. Don’t just share the items with members; lift up your entire industry by making this content accessible to everyone who needs it right now.

Remember: We’re in This Together

Above all, show compassion and have understanding – for your members, your teams, your community and yourself. Everyone is worried and unsure of tomorrow, let alone where we’ll be a year from now. It’s likely that the economic consequences will linger long after the effects of the coronavirus itself. Individuals and businesses will need to regrow and rebuild, and associations can help their members do just that by communicating and collaborating in new and exciting ways.

The good news is that associations have long been a source of support for their communities, and your members need you right now to continue to fight on their behalf and provide them with the resources that help move our world forward.

How has your association been communicating through this crisis so far, and what are your plans in the weeks to come? If you’d like to share some of the content or plans you’ve created so far to help other associations, please send them to me at [email protected]. I’ll share in a future article.

About The Author

Sarah Sain, CAE is director of content, member communications for Naylor Association Solutions. She can be reached at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter at @ssain7.