The coronavirus outbreak has forced eventprofs to make and announce difficult and often heartbreaking decisions regarding the status of their events. Some have done better than others, and here are four lessons from their effective crisis communications.
Crisis communications expertise is a skill event planners need but hope they never have to use. In recent weeks, however, it has become a crucial aspect of the role.
Cancellations and postponements continue to make headlines as it becomes increasingly clear that the impact on the industry is going to last more than a few months. Event organizers and brands are handling the situation — and their communications — differently, but the companies getting it right are valuable sources of inspiration and instruction.
Here are four key strategies for responding to a crisis gleaned from examining event companies with particularly effective communications to attendees and stakeholders.
Tell It Like It Is
While it may be tempting to sugarcoat the situation and not fully address the implications of what's going on, more often than not, this approach will damage your image and the trust that your audience places in your brand or company.
Only you know what's right given your particular audience and stakeholders — and that's what you should let guide your communications. However, keep in mind that people tend to appreciate honest updates and full transparency.
The event production company Freeman recently released a statement about their response to the pandemic and laid out the situation very bluntly:
While this response is frank, it is effective because it directly addresses what's on everyone's mind and doesn't deny what everyone now knows to be true, whether they're admitting it or not.
They conclude: "We don’t know when the economic recovery will begin. We don’t know where all the pieces will settle. We do know Freeman has been supporting this industry for over 90 years. We stand ready to support our customers today, and for many years to come."
These statements are honest as they acknowledge the many unknowns the industry and the world are facing, and ending on a positive and uplifting note reassures customers that they are still focusing on what they can control and doing what they can to help the industry. This brings us to the next point.
Focus on Core Purpose
In our recent Pivot to Virtual online event, we heard from crisis communications experts Adele Cehrs and Chip Massey on how eventprofs should approach their messaging around COVID-19.
According to Cehrs, one of the most important things for organizations to do in this time of crisis is to stay true to themselves and focus on their core purpose. In times of crisis, and especially when your stakeholders look to you for support and guidance, it is important to reinforce your value and what you stand for.
IMEX, the biggest trade show of the year for the events industry, was set to take place in Germany in May but announced last month that it would be cancelled. In their cancellation message, Chairman Ray Bloom and CEO Carina Bauer emphasized their core message and the feeling of unity that IMEX aims to bring to the industry:
"Quite rightly, many of you see yourselves as friends and members of the extended IMEX family. This is precisely why we’ve thought long and hard in the past few days, consulting in depth with partners and stakeholders across the industry, before making this announcement. Our strapline “We Are All Connected” has never felt more true, nor more important."
They also explained their primary reason for cancelling and brought it back to their core purpose:
"Whilst only a short time ago we felt optimistic that May was far enough away to confidently proceed with our plans, as it stands today [11 March] we cannot guarantee the one thing that our exhibitors trust us above all else to deliver – namely a large-scale, high quality hosted buyer programme."
Bauer also separately made clear the emphasis on serving the industry, even in the difficult decision to cancel.
Support for IMEX was overwhelmingly positive when they posted the announcement on Twitter, demonstrating that their genuine and heartfelt messaging resonated with their audience. Reinforcing their core purpose reminded those in the events community what they valued about IMEX, and worked to rally the industry behind them.
An impossibly hard decision to make but under the circumstances the right one. @IMEX_Group you have our full support. We will miss connecting with colleagues and clients from all over the world at #imexfrankfurt. Stay safe everyone.
— Amanda Ferguson (@amandaghenderso) March 11, 2020
Convey Empathy and Understanding
As mentioned by Cehrs and Massey, taking on a "woe is me" attitude won't get you very far. Everyone is being impacted by the current circumstances and understands the unfairness of the situation from their own perspective. Empathizing with people's situations and continuing to serve the industry in whatever way possible is a much more effective approach.
Event management company MCI has embraced this tactic with their specific coronavirus resource website page. Their messaging revolves around being of service to their clients in this difficult time:
They also make it clear that they're continuously assessing the situation and working to be as helpful as possible:
"MCI USA is analyzing new developments and positioning — and repositioning — our service lines in ways that offer new pathways for clients."
These messages, along with an entire page dedicated to coronavirus content and resources, help convey their care for their clients and the industry, and demonstrate to their audience that they can be counted on when it matters most.
Project Calm and Confidence
Cehrs and Massey also discussed the idea of "emotional contagion," which is the idea that your feelings can influence those around you. This is incredibly important when it comes to crisis communications because, if event organizers convey panic and confusion, that's how their audience will feel as well.
Cvent, one of the biggest eventtech companies in the industry, provided a great example of how to execute a calm and reassuring tone in their letter from CEO and Founder Reggie Aggarwal. Aggarwal shares optimistic anecdotes from his years of experience in the industry and Cvent comes across as very in control and on top of the situation:
It's hard not to feel proud of the industry and motivated to keep forging on after reading his letter, and that's exactly why it's effective.
Communicating in a time of crisis is never easy, but it is one more task that many eventprofs have had to get comfortable with overnight. The industry is experiencing a situation that is wholly unprecedented in our lifetimes, and it can be difficult to know how to respond or react.
The most important thing to keep in mind during this time is to craft messaging that keeps everyone informed while staying sensitive and empathetic to what people and businesses are feeling. Look to companies like these that have already taken initiative with effective communications, but remember that messaging should always be tailored to your own audiences.