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Crisis Communication for CX Leaders

Release Date: April 7, 2020 • Episode #111

Businesses and organizations are facing a new operational reality that affects customers and employees, and as a CX professional, you and your company need to be prepared to effectively manage crisis situations. Host Steve Walker welcomes Jennifer Dzwonar, a partner at Borshoff, a PR agency known for their work in crisis and community relations, and discuss how CX professionals can help communicate with customers during difficult times.

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Steve:
Well, these times are unprecedented. With stay-at-home orders and record high unemployment claims, companies across the globe are having to navigate some troubling waters.

Jennifer:
Crisis communications is very much a team process that really needs to be vetted among top management and among customer experience experts as well, because the customers are going to pay more attention to that message.

Steve:
We talk to a crisis management expert with helpful advice for CX pros on this episode of… The CX Leader Podcast.

Announcer:
The CX Leader Podcast with Steve Walker is a production of Walker, an experience management firm that helps companies accelerate their CX success. Find out more at walkerinfo.com.

Steve:
Hello, everyone. I'm Steve Walker, host of The CX Leader Podcast and thank you for listening. On The CX Leader Podcast, we explore topics and themes to help leaders like you leverage all the benefits of your customer experience and help your customers and prospects want to do more business with you. Like millions around the world, we at The CX Leader Podcast are affected by the current situation and we are observing our local stay at home order. It's why you might notice a difference in our sound quality since we are recording this episode remotely. Businesses and organizations are facing a new operational reality that affects customers, employees and as a CX professional, you and your company need to be prepared to effectively manage these crisis situations. And with that, I'm very proud to have as my guest on this episode, Jennifer Young Dzwonar, a partner at Borshoff, an award winning creative and PR agency known for their work in crisis and community relations. Jennifer leads that practice and has served a range of clients and during the most unique and challenging ordeals. Jennifer, it's a real pleasure. Thank you for being on The CX Leader Podcast.

Jennifer:
Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Steve:
Well, you know, if you're an Indianapolis native like I am, you know well about Borshoff, but maybe for our broader listening audience, why don't you just tell us a little bit about the agency and its roots, and, because I think it's a great story.

Jennifer:
Absolutely. Thank you. Myra Borshoff founded the agency thirty five years ago and she became a crisis communications go-to and a real guru both here in the state of Indiana and around, really the country and definitely around the region. And I joined the company twenty five years ago. Hard to believe… and… for myself… And I am one of the four women who are now owners of the company. And so I, in essence, grew up or was raised by Myra in this crisis communications field, both learning it with different clients, and different situations, but also becoming a student of it in terms of best practices around the country and now around the world. So we often call it "issues management" because a lot of people when they're doing this planning, maybe don't want to call their situation a crisis, but it is definitely issues management and we are glad to help organizations through those situations as best we can.

Steve:
Well, I'm fortunate enough that I got to work with Myra in the community on a couple of situations and see her in action. She has a couple of pretty famous situations that she helped engineer. Can you reference just one that people might be familiar with?

Jennifer:
Sure. So we worked with the Indianapolis Colts for many years and certainly navigated a lot of different issues that happened with NFL teams and both on and off the field. And those were very interesting. And then a lot in health care and also some issues that became national that looked like they would be highly local at first. But where in certain hospital settings and unfortunately, some fatalities at the theme park and some of those where you hate to think that those are the ones where your reputation is made. But sometimes it is when the heat is on and when the national media is paying attention, that some of those are the ones where here… people hear most about you rather than the day in and day out crises that we take care of that fortunately no one ever hears about.

Steve:
Maybe just in general, because the world has changed so much in just a couple of weeks. What are the general guidelines for people to be prepared for the unexpected when you think about it from a branding standpoint for your organization and particularly how it might affect your customers or the people that you want to do business with?

Jennifer:
Absolutely. Well, when we engage with a… an organization, sometimes it's very quickly: we get the call and we need to get up to speed immediately and really start providing counsel from that very first call. And there's no doubt, as I think about your listeners here, that a lot of people call when they are most concerned about what their reputation could mean to their customers. That that is clearly most organization's top concern is what will our our customers learn about this? How can we best communicate with our customers through this situation? So we very quickly help determine with the organization if this is an internal or an external issue, because a lot of the biggest challenges are really very internal issues, things where the staff is very disrupted or there could be internal issues, but those could, of course, bleed out into the external. And then others really are internally fine, but externally, there's a concern about how something might look or appear either to customers or out to the greater public and the media. So determining those who… what do we need to be concerned about? And then looking at effective messages and communications, both what can we say and where do we need to say it. And what do we need to just be prepared with reactively? And what do we need to be prepared and plan to do proactively and weighing a lot of those things? We also start determining who will deliver the message because it is not always the CEO that makes the most sense. There are times when it does make sense to be the top of the organization and the CEO. But there are other times when the message is better delivered by, let's say, the head of H.R. or legal counsel, or just depending on the situation, a head of engineering or customer service. And then handling the media relations is a piece that we often help organizations with. Should there be media? And then we also monitor what's going on. What's the media saying about the situation? What is social media saying? Because sometimes when you're caught up in a situation, it can seem that it's what everyone is talking about. But when we go and monitor, we find that, no, it's really not getting out there very much in the world is really not quite as big as what it feels like when you're inside the organization.

Steve:
Well, that's some great outline for how people could be a little bit better prepared for when and if a crisis happens. Well, I guess a lot of us are thinking about that today with the current situation. And, well, it's not really a crisis that we created. It's still in some ways a crisis that we all have to deal with. So generally… I was really struck with your comments about internal versus external, because obviously there's a lot of fear out there. So the role of the leadership is to take some of that fear out of the equation. What are some guidelines that you might give to a leader and in terms of just trying to keep everybody from panicking?

Jennifer:
Yeah. Definitely in this era, it's been happening for a while. And, you know, before, of course, the crisis that we're which we're living right now. But transparency has been such a huge word as you all know and you're dealing with all the time, and it's just more so now with internal communications or employee engagement, as we call it. There's a sense that management needs to level with employees and tell them what's going on. And it doesn't mean you're getting into all of the nitty-gritty details all the time, because sometimes that could just make people more stressed than they are. But really assuring your internal folks that this is what's going on, we have a handle on it, we're looking into it, we will be back in touch with you with more information. All of those things can go a really long way. We've also seen with employee engagement communications, there's a much higher expectation among all of us as employees now that the communications will be high quality, meaning maybe it's a video that the CEO or another senior manager does, you know, from his or her desk. People feel that you've gone out of your way to communicate with the internal audience, and that can stem a lot of confusion because what we're trying to do is obviously fill a vacuum that otherwise just gets filled with rumor and hearsay. And people sometimes expecting the worst when really if they know that management is on top of it and dealing with it, then a lot of those concerns can be assuaged.

Steve:
You've given us a great idea of some of what are the dos, the things you want to do. What are some of the don'ts that you don't want to do in these sorts of situations?

Jennifer:
I think sometimes – I go back to that spokesperson – we've seen situations in which people, unfortunately, have chosen a spokesperson who is not particularly good at this. Maybe they were chosen for their role, but they are not good at sort of that emotional piece of how to communicate some information or potentially don't have the credibility with the audience. There's somebody who feels very removed from the people they are talking with. And so we have seen where some people they choose an inappropriate spokesperson. And sometimes that's hard to then switch because once you switch it, it makes a bigger deal when when people start noticing that. And then also there's always this balance of timing: going out to people when you have enough information to sound intelligent and to calm people's fears, but not waiting so long that the vacuum goes on for too long. So finding that balance. We see this a lot with things like a data breach. Those unfortunately are so common now, and at the same time, there's an appropriate balance of when you know enough to be able to say, here's how it happened, here's who was affected, and here's what we're doing to fix it. And yet not waiting so long if some of that information is going to take too long to put together, by the time it comes out, people are aware of it and it looks as if the company did not have its act together. So a spokesperson and timing and then not being afraid to have what we call a "holding statement," which is just that initial statement that comes out that says we're working on it and we'll be back with more information. It's amazing how just that little bit can't make people feel better. And then you could come back – and you need to come back – when you do have more information. And we have some situations in which we've moved to daily updates. And sometimes that's just too often. If it's a slower moving situation, sometimes it can be weekly or less often, but a regular cadence to let people know what's going on.

Steve:
Yeah, that's great insights for our listeners. You know, I was listening to you talk. It made me think that, you know, just because you're given such great tips, but this is maybe sort of a rhetorical question, but, you know, you have to make sure that what you're providing the information is is good. I love the concept of a holding statement, but what would you say to somebody who said this will just pass over? We don't really need to deal with this. Let's just kind of let this cycle through.

Jennifer:
You know, it's interesting because on the one hand, putting your head in the sand and ignoring is definitely not good practice, and of course, almost any part of business, period. But there are definitely times when we are talking your clients out of going proactively, especially to the media, that they will want to right a wrong and to respond to something that they saw on social media or even the media got wrong. And they will want to go out, guns blaring, guns blazing… is that the term? And, um, horns blaring and start to correct the issue. And we're saying, OK, wait, let's have a statement ready in case anybody comes to us with it. Let's see where this conversation goes. I'll give a quick story. We just had talked with a company that a local news reporter had done a very one sided story about this manufacturing plant's impact on the environment. They used no scientific facts, didn't talk to anybody in the company. They just went on some hearsay comments of a neighbor who lived near the plant. And so the company got understandably upset about that. But they wanted to go hold a town hall meeting, do a press release, correct the whole thing. And we said, wait, this is one TV station. One reporter did one story. Let's see if it gets any legs. And we watched even on the TV stations website to see that that story got very buried. It wasn't getting any comments. It wasn't getting a lot of clicks. And what we did then was recommend that they send a very sharply worded letter to that reporter and to the reporter's news director to say this is absolutely inaccurate. And here's the information from the EPA and here's what we do to follow these guidelines. And here's everything. So you set the record straight, but you do it in this very internal way that tells that media do not come at us again. Or if you do, you need to talk to us because you got it wrong. But we don't involve a whole community in something that potentially no one was really paying attention to.

Steve:
I sort of infer from that story that another tip might be to not let your emotions get the better of you here. And that's a service that you guys in crisis management consultant can really help you with. Right?

Jennifer:
That's exactly right. I think this era in which we're living right now with this particular crisis as emotions are very much on edge. I know we're working with a number of companies right now and organizations that have really heartbreaking things going on. So there's definitely human emotion that we don't take fully out of it. And employees can tell and the public can tell when a communicator is really, you know, speaking from the heart. So I think there is that. But you're absolutely right. You can't let your emotions get the best of you to the point that you start saying things you wish you hadn't said later, that things aren't thought through. And this is why this is… crisis communications is very much a group process. It is a team process. This is never, should never be left to one individual. One person may write the messages and they put the plan together, but it really needs to be vetted among top management. And thinking about this conversation among customer experience experts as well, because the customers are going to pay more attention to that message from a company than almost anyone else. Employees first and then customers. And so vetting that through a few different people and not just having one person fire off messages is definitely a good idea.

Steve:
I'm delighted to have as my guest this week on the podcast, Jennifer Dzwonar. She is a partner at Borshoff, which is a creative and PR agency located here in Indianapolis. And Jennifer is an expert in the area of crisis communications. And with everything that's going on in the world, we thought it would be great to have somebody with her kind of experience come talk to our CX pros. And really, Jennifer, that's what I'd like to do at this point is kind of turn the discussion a little more directed towards CX professionals. You know, they might sit in sort of the same organizational structure as the PR folks in their group, and they probably do interface with them, but they probably don't think first about crisis management like a PR pro would be, but yet they'd be really critical during these time periods. So we ask you to think a little bit about how this might apply to someone who's a day to day activities aren't really crisis management, but they are very customer focused. So what advice would you have for our CX pros that are listening to podcast?

Jennifer:
Sure. One thing I think is to assume right now that everyone is affected by this crisis in some way. It may be from the most mundane way in terms of needing to stay home and work and stay home more than, of course, any of us is used to to the pressure of actually having it work change or some work being in jeopardy, which is incredibly stressful. And then to the extreme of actually having a health emergency. And since we can't know everything that's affecting people it's so important for customer service folks to be thinking, just assume and every conversation that everyone is going to be affected and in some way that if your contact is usually with customers just sort of starting out with that and seeing, I guess, a softer side, from what I would say, we're working with some some clients who are used to being in fairly contentious and challenging situations, and they're seeing everyone sort of soften a little bit. It doesn't mean that everything is easier. In fact, a lot of things are obviously more stressful. But for customer service folks to just be as your folks already are in touch with customers, this is just one more layer of being really in touch with them. And internally just communicate, communicate, communicate more than ever. As you said, a lot of times customer service and PR or external communications or corporate communications are all talking to each other. But if you aren't quite enough, it's a great time to really say, OK, the world is different now. How do we communicate far more in that hyper focus on staying in touch and telling people what customers are feeling, will help everybody in the organization help you be an asset to them.

Steve:
You know, this situation is moving fast. In fact, even from the time that we kind of engaged you to be our guest, to when we actually got to recording the episode, some of the timelines for the delays in the economy have yet been stretched out further. So given the fact that we really don't know where the finish line is here and that all of us are going to have to keep adapting, what kind of guidance would you give, just generally for, you know, who's going to be successful and who's going to fail?

Jennifer:
I think overall what we're seeing is that I think people are feeling this as individuals as well as as professionals, is that companies that focus on the well-being and the mental health of their teams and then that may extend to customers are going to come out of this situation best. There will be key moments when usually those teams may be really focused on sales numbers, productivity challenges, those kind of things. But to turn it to also focus on how the team is doing mentally or emotionally, maybe starting with that bit of conversation. And it doesn't mean, you know, delving into everyone's personal lives in those key moments, but it can be something like asking everyone to share one thing they're grateful for this week. You know, turning it into that little positivity piece of it without overdoing it. And that kind of thing is going to lead to success for companies that I think you've probably all seen it in your email when you're getting messages from companies that walk this great line of letting you know, being informational, but also letting you know that you're people and that you are a person and not just a number to them. And the failure will come from companies that continue to just do business as usual: sales calls and ignore that this is happening. I'm amazed at the ones that I've gotten just today and this morning from people who want to do like lead generation to work with agencies like ours. Well, it's just your standard lead generation message, rather than any kind of acknowledgement that we're all going through this absolutely crazy and chaotic time. Odds are good we're working remotely that things are different about how we're generating leads. And just to not acknowledge that seems like a real miss.

Steve:
You know, one other thought I had, Jennifer, just as we were preparing for this podcast is that, you know, PR tends to feel a little more with the broader communications, sort of be the corporate messaging, or the brand type of messaging. And customer experience professionals, while they deal with that at some level around the values that the company holds and sort of generally how they want to treat their customers, a lot of customer experience pros are really kind of more down at the individual, either business unit or product level or, you know, in business to business environments, even at the account level. So can you talk a little bit about how crisis management might manage differently from sort of the corporate or brand standpoint versus the individual, say, key customer level?

Jennifer:
I think right now we're seeing a real melding of those. And I think companies that manage to bridge that well are probably seeing some of the best feedback from customers right now. In other words, if your brand promise, it would often include things like great customer service or top quality products or world class work. How do you continue saying those same things while leading with this consciousness of the crisis that's going on so that you weave together this sense that our great customer service has changed? Now, if we happen to be a brick and mortar store that's no longer open, or if we're going to be serving customers very differently in this environment, it doesn't mean we're backing away from our brand promise of great customer service, or it doesn't mean that even though we're delivering products very differently, that we're backing away from our brand promise of top quality products. So just those kinds of ways to lead with it. But then also be sure that the brand promise doesn't just get put on a shelf during this time. In fact, if anything, it gets pulled out and put front and center. And I think it gives companies, organizations the possibility the opportunity to revisit: "why are we here, why are we doing what we're doing, what do we provide that is of the most value and how do we keep doing it in this environment?" Fred Garcia is a well-known and highly regarded public relations consultant, and he has five tenets of a good message that I thought would be good to share because a lot of us do it but he's actually put it into these five and that is in any message, have an acknowledgment of what is happening – step one. Two, empathy. You know something along the lines of we know this is a challenging time for all of us, et cetera. Three, a piece of values. You know, what is our response to this situation? How do our values get represented in this time? Briefly, again. Four, the approach, here's what we're doing. Here's how you'll be able to reach us differently. Here's how we'll continue to serve your needs. Here's how we want to hear from you as our customers. And then. step five: commitment. We're committed to doing this. We're committed to fulfilling all requests. We're committed to keeping you updated. Whatever it happens to be, we're committed to being here when you're ready to resume normal business. That kind of thing. So just the idea of taking a fresh look at your messages and especially if there are any auto messages going out, really take your fresh look and saying, do we sound as if we are the same great company, but we are looking at it through this lens of the current situation.

Steve:
Boy, those are… Those five tenants are really valuable. I wrote them down and I plan to use them going forward. So thank you for sharing that. All right, Jennifer, we've reached that point of the podcast where we ask all our guests to provide a take home value for listeners. So the subject here today is crisis management. We're all dealing with a crisis at some level. So what is your best tip for… particularly for customer experience pros related to something that they can use in their jobs today to help take some of the stress out of the system, either for their coworkers or their clients or both?

Jennifer:
As I thought of this, I thought: internal for one and external for the other. Internal, I think more and more connection as we talked about across departments, to be sure that you as customer service, customer experience professionals are sharing what customers are feeling and thinking and doing during this crisis. If you do that regularly, terrific. You know, maybe just take it up a little bit more. If you aren't in the… in the practice of doing that all the time in your organization just kind of operates in some separate areas or silos, you will do a huge service to your company by really proactively saying, here is what we have a finger on the pulse of our customers. Here is what they are saying right now. Here's what they're thinking and doing. Being especially aware of making sure that you are bringing value internally to your whole company by telling people what customers are thinking and feeling right now. And responding what's their what's their activity? How has that changed? And then the external that I would say is it's helpful is customer relationships, even in the whole companies really can be even strengthened during a time of crisis. When a relationship is handled really well during these kind of times, it goes to a deeper level during a crisis that can have lasting benefits. And it's one of those bright shining lights or silver linings in this really challenging time right now is that handling this well and being very intentional can have lasting benefits far after this crisis is passed?

Steve:
Jennifer Dzwonar has been my guest on the podcast this week as we talk about crisis management during these turbulent times. Jennifer, I can't thank you enough for being a guest on the podcast this week. Thank you very much.

Jennifer:
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Steve:
And Jennifer is an expert in crisis communications. She's a partner at Borshoff, a creative and PR agency based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jennifer, if any of our listeners would want to continue the conversation, I see you are on LinkedIn so they can find you on LinkedIn?

Jennifer:
Absolutely. And our Web site is borshoff.biz.

Steve:
Very good. And Dzwonar is D Z W O N A R. If you want to talk about anything you've heard on this podcast or about how Walker can help your business customer experience, feel free to email me here at steve.walker@walkerinformation.com. Remember to visit our website cxleaderpodcast.com to subscribe to the show and find all our previous episodes, podcast series and contact information so you can let us know how we're doing. The CX Leader Podcast is a production of Walker, we're an experienced management firm that helps companies accelerate their CX success. You can read more about us at walkerinfo.com. Thanks for being here. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you again next time.

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