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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

By Gayle Saunders

Guess who’s coming to...

Dinner. Why is it the same question EVERY.SINGLE.DAY – Son: “Mom, what’s for dinner?” Me: “Son, we are in the middle of a pandemic, there are more important things to worry about. Let’s be grateful we have options for dinner.” Son: “Okay, mom, I was just wondering.”

Listening to your audience and responding to its need is critical. During these times of COVID-19, it is more important today than ever before.

As we watch our leaders communicate to their constituents, one thing has become abundantly clear...leadership matters, and having the right and diverse people on your team makes a difference. Ohio has become an example and will become a case study for communicators near and far on how to lead and communicate during a crisis, thanks to our governor, his team, and their commitment to transparency in communications.

In this unprecedented time of “alternative facts.” revisionist history, propagandist storytelling and daily barrage of misinformation, we as public relations practitioners, have a responsibility to develop strategies and communications that are transparent, real, and inclusive.

The roles we play, especially during crisis situations, are invaluable. There are examples after examples of communications gone bad, and how that negatively impacts community trust. And, let’s not overlook the social media disaster that targeted blacks, saying “there’s no need to worry about COVID-19.”

We must push the envelope to ensure our leaders are thinking about ALL constituents, how words matter, how strategies matter, how imagery matters. As we continue to drive toward our lives on the other side of the coronavirus, it is imperative that communicators of diverse backgrounds and experiences are at the table to counsel leadership and help drive strategies, messaging, and creative approaches to ensure ALL audiences impacted are receiving the critical information needed.

I offer a few key considerations as we work with clients during a crisis:

  1. Ask the tough questions – probe deeply.
  2. Determine if the right people are at the table to address multiple issues and audiences. Look around and see who is missing. Bring people of diverse perspectives into the discussion on the front end, rather than after the stuff has hit the fan.
  3. Be willing to acknowledge loss and be sincere in your sympathy to the loss. While you may not be able to share all the details, for various reasons, share what you can. And remember, it is imperative to show some heart during tough times.
  4. Communicate consistently and in a timely manner. Create a steady cadence of communications updates, and be sure media and community know when these occur. Provide access to these via social channels and other avenues.
  5. Develop communications approaches to reach audiences with the right message, where they are, and how they best receive the information. This includes your internal and your external audiences.
  6. Know who the key influencers are for your audience...who or what makes them believe?
  7. Select the right messenger(s) – be sure the people are relatable, trusted, demonstrate leadership, and exude confidence with a high level of compassion.
  8. Listen to your team, knowledgeable experts in the field, and your audience.
  9. Use social media to your advantage. Keep a pulse of chatter on social media channels and other networks and be prepared to respond as needed.
  10. Dispel myths quickly, address misinformation promptly.
  11. Most importantly, keep your crisis plan updated and have your team prepared.

Now, back to the question of the day – dinner. What is the relevance you ask? Audience matters...what is important to him matters. Responding in a timely manner, matters. Showing compassion and an understanding of his need, matters. You get the connection.

My diversion and avoidance tactic left an unnecessary void that could easily be addressed with an honest and transparent response. So today, when my son asks the dinner question, my response will be: “Son, I have not gotten that far yet, what would you like, or do you have a suggestion?” I guarantee, our engagement during dinner, and beyond, will be a totally different result – for the better.

E. Gayle Saunders, APR, is CEO of The Saunders Company, a full-service public relations firm in Columbus, Ohio. She is engaged by clients for support during crisis situations and has led public relations, crisis communications and acted as spokesperson for big brands such as The Ohio State University and Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at [email protected].

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