Jon Tibbs | The 10 Cs: Communication during a crisis

Jon Tibbs, founder and chairman of international relations and brand-building in sport consultancy JTA, delivers an essential briefing on the fundamentals of effective crisis communications for sports bodies in an unprecedented period of uncertainty.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for SportBusiness urging sports rights owners to move with sensitivity when cancelling or postponing events in China due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

I ended the article by stating that this was not a China disease, but that it was a global one that happened to originate in China. 

I had no idea then that, 24 days later, the global sports calendar would be decimated with most of the iconic and mainstream international sports events between now and June having been cancelled or postponed. Even the greatest show on earth, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, is approaching the tipping point of potential postponement. 

So it is no exaggeration to say that this is the gravest crisis faced by world sport in living memory. Professional and grass roots sporting organisations and athletes alike face unprecedented challenges, and there is no end in sight. 

The knock-on effect in the major sports vertical supply chain, for example, is already seeing casualties. Some businesses are already closing down.

Therefore, it is with a degree of guilt that I realise my agency is busy with each of our 20+ clients turning to us for varying degrees of crisis communications assistance over COVID-19. 

The crisis communications sub-sector in PR is well established and has developed over many decades around some of the most severe crises that have affected our planet. And whilst this coronavirus crisis is creating challenges that society has not faced before, the way organisations communicate during the crisis remains a well-trodden path. 

Traditionally, there are three main phases for crisis communications:

1. Prepare

2. Manage

3. Repair

Many of the larger sports organisations will have been prepared for a major crisis: not for a pandemic specifically, but they would have set up systems and processes to enable them to communicate effectively in the event of any situation that could cause long-term damage to their brand. 

However, the majority of sports bodies are smaller organisations that will have no such preparation in place and will have been caught cold by the rapid onset of the challenges presented by Covid-19.

To a certain extent, all sports organisations are now playing catch up and are in the Management phase of crisis communications.

The primary recommendation is that all sports organisations should step up their communications during this unprecedented crisis. The worst thing that any organisation can do is create an information void.

During the Covid-19 crisis, any communication voids are being filled with mixed information and misinformation, fuelled by social media. Key stakeholders (such as athletes, sponsors, and fans) will develop their own negative perceptions in a void and as the saying goes, “Perception is reality”. Another way of putting it is: people can deal with bad news but they cannot deal with no news. 

An example of this has been the way that sentiment behind UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid-19 was in free fall until he began his daily press briefings with greater transparency, flanked by scientific and medical experts to validate his policy decisions.

The following is a basic set of communications good practice that sports organisations should consider adopting during the prolonged Covid-19 crisis. It is based on the tried-and-tested ‘10 Cs’.

1. Care and Concern

This is an unprecedented situation and is causing significant issues for many stakeholders – especially athletes and staff. 

So, it is really important to always acknowledge this and show compassion and concern in internal and external communications. 

2. Credibility

As stated, there is coronavirus overload on social media with a lot of mixed information and misinformation. So it is important to be accurate and credible in all the communications and information provided.

When offering advice or guidance relating to health and welfare, communications should be supported with third-party expert advice (e.g. from government CMOs, WHO) with data and proof points. 

3. Calm

As always in worrying times like this, it is very important that communication is calm and measured. This comes from the content and the way (who, when, where, how) it is communicated. 

A calm approach will instil greater confidence and credibility with audiences. 

One way to instil calm during this crisis is to communicate human interest content from within the relevant organisation or sport, to show how different stakeholders are dealing with the crisis. It can be engaging and even celebratory. There are already thousands of examples on social media of acts of human kindness during this Covid-19 crisis, and of people being creative and flexible in the sports business world. This should be celebrated. 

 4. Control

It is important that any sports organisation demonstrates clear and decisive leadership to its stakeholders during this crisis. They need to see that it has a good handle on the elements of the crisis that are under its control. 

However, encouraging speculation and allowing debate about hypothetical scenarios (such as Tokyo 2020 being postponed) on communication channels should be discouraged.  

It is also important that the executive leadership of the organisation is seen to be at the top of the pyramid of decision-making. Stakeholders need to see these guys hard at work, communicating on a regular basis. 

5. Competence

It is very important that sports organisations show they have the competence to deal with the controllable elements of the crisis. Any set-backs or progress made should be shared and explained. The next steps and the plans ahead also need to be shared and explained.

This means showing stakeholders that in-house and third-party experts (WHO or government agencies, or the IOC) are guiding experienced managers in decision-making and action.  

6. Consistency

Sports organisations must be consistent in the frequency, timing, method and messaging in their communications. With a total lack of sports action to communicate, there needs to be a clear plan of creative content for daily distribution on social media and to traditional media. The plan needs updating for a grid of fresh content at least a week ahead. People are screaming out for content. Silence is not an option. 

A lack of consistency in any of the above areas leads to voids, doubt, confusion and a lack of credibility. This is particularly true when dealing with the media, but it is also critical for staff, athletes and officials, as well as national federations and clubs, etc. 

It is important to talk with one voice both in terms of consistent messaging, but also with one main spokesperson. The most senior executive should be used on a regular basis for updates and to talk through any major policy changes. 

7. Clarity

It is absolutely essential that that there is no ambiguity and no room for doubt in all communications around this crisis.

Every piece of advice must be easily understood by all stakeholders, and be sensitive to different cultures and translation into other languages. 

8. Conciseness

The best way to be clear and avoid ambiguity is to be concise in all communications.  

Detailed information to back up your succinct communications can always be placed on the website.  

9. Co-operation

More than at any other time, sports organisations need to cooperate with all stakeholders during crisis communications.

For example, ignoring media requests for information will only alienate those media organisations when they are actually needed to amplify positive actions and messages.

All stakeholder requests for information should be considered and responded to in a timely manner wherever possible. We are seeing several sports organisations setting up confidential hotlines and other channels for staff and athletes to discuss their issues. 

10. Currency

It is critically important that all communications contain the most up-to-date information in as close to real time as possible.

This is essential to instil credibility, and a sense of transparency and respect to stakeholders.

During this whole crisis there should be a constant evaluation of various communications actions. Measurement can include tone and volume of direct reaction from stakeholders, sentiment on social media posts and sentiment in media coverage. 

I will cover the Repair Phase of dealing with this crisis in a future edition. In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy.