Whether it's a global pandemic or a data breach, a crisis of any kind can negatively impact your company's operations or reputation.

So, what can marketers say and do to keep customers informed and satisfied until the crisis is over?

For starters, a crisis can threaten not only your company but also your job, your career, and possibly your livelihood. You become motivated to do whatever it takes to complete assigned tasks—even if it means longer days, extra cups of coffee, and skipping your normal self-care routines. And that works for a while—but you will soon begin to make mistakes because of a. phenomenon known as cognitive tunneling, "when your focus narrows during periods of elevated stress, making you blind to things in your environment that you would normally perceive."

Exactly at a time when your customers are looking to you for accuracy, empathy, and guidance.

You can avoid that predicament if you plan ahead and create a framework or process that prompts you to craft the right message to your customers—even if you're under stress. And you'll place your crisis marketing campaign on the right footing.

If you don't know where to start, I recommend the framework used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's called the Single Overriding Communications Objective (SOCO), which the agency uses when crafting messages in response to public health emergencies.

SOCO consists of a series of five questions:

  1. What is the primary message?
  2. What do you want recipients of the message to do?
  3. What groups of customers need to know about this?
  4. What facts or data support the message?
  5. Who is the spokesperson of this message?

Let's break down each question while using an example that B2B brands all know and fear: the data breach.

What is the primary message?

Your customers may be in panic mode as a result of your company's crisis—especially if their business relies on yours to run. What one thing should they remember or know that might assuage their panic?

Determining a primary message not only helps you focus on what to say but also reduces the likelihood that customers will misinterpret your message.

In the case of our fictional data breach, a primary message might involve apologizing to customers and taking responsibility for the incident.

What do you want recipients to do?

Otherwise known as a call to action.

Again, your customers are in panic mode and looking for leadership and guidance on next steps. It's important to show them that your company is in control and it can lead them through the crisis.

In the case of a data breach, you may tell your customers that even though you're doing everything you can to secure their information, it may be a good idea to change their passwords or set up two-factor authentication.

What groups of customers need to know about this?

Though it may be tempting to send a message to every contact in your customer database, chances are that only the people who are directly affected need to hear about it. Or what they need to hear is different from what others should hear. Accordingly, it would be better to segment your audiences and craft different messages to your various audiences.

In our fictional data breach crisis, maybe hackers accessed only a section of the database. So you would send one message to the affected population, with directions on how to secure their information, and an alert to the rest of your customers, with assurances that a data breach occurred but their information wasn't compromised.

What facts or data support the message?

Depending on what your primary message is, you may need to back up your communication with facts or data—which help remove emotions from a situation and bolster the credibility of your message.

In a data-breach scenario, you might acknowledge the day and time it occurred, the types of accessed information, and the steps you're taking as a company to secure the database.

Who should be the spokesperson for the message?

Whether you're sending an email or holding a press conference, you need to determine the best person to deliver the message. Why? Because for a message to resonate, it must come from someone who has customers' trust.

According to crisis communications expert Doug Levy, trust can be established through familiarity or authority. Levy goes on to explain: "Most people will trust familiar faces or names. [However,] in emergencies, people look for officials who sound knowledgeable and are empathetic."

That's why, often, you'll see media spokespersons in uniform, depending on the type of emergency.

As for that fictional data breach, it may be tempting to default to your CEO to "send" the message to your customers, but if customers don't recognize the CEO's name or the CEO has never communicated with them prior to the incident, the message may fall on deaf ears. A better choice would be a customer success manager they regularly communicate with or a technical leader who is responsible for securing the database.

Let's sum it up

A company crisis may be stressful, but your ability to respond with accuracy and empathy will give customers the confidence to stick with your company. To make sure that's what happens, establish a framework or process that helps you craft the right message even in a high-stress situation.

Use the five questions recommended above as is or as a starting point to create your own. Either way, you'll be prepared.

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How to Effectively Talk to Your Customers During a Crisis

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image of Sophia Le

Sophia Le is a speaker, an award-winning marketer, and a former emergency manager who's on a mission to share everything she knows about disaster-proofing your brand.

LinkedIn: Sophia Le

Twitter: @ImSophiaLe