State Policy Network
Crisis communications prep for state think tanks during COVID-19

By Meredith Turney, Senior Director of Leadership Development and Strategic Communications at State Policy Network

When we talk about crisis communications, it’s usually in the context of a media attack on an organization. But it also covers community crises like a hurricane or fire—or the current COVID-19 pandemic. State Policy Network provides crisis communications plans and best practices on our member portal. The following is a summary of steps state think tanks should take as well as things state think tanks should think about as they navigate this current challenge.

1. Have a crisis communications plan for your staff

Many organizations are closing their offices right now for “social distancing” in an effort to avoid spreading the virus. This means many staff are working from home. It’s important to have a plan for how staff will be able to communicate with each other during this crisis. If you don’t have one already, draft a written plan. Having the plan in writing is key so that everyone knows the plan and can then execute.

Whether it’s email, text, Zoom, Slack or some other team communication tool, determine what will work best for fostering necessary communication for your team. Also consider how to shift in-person meetings like weekly staff meetings to a virtual environment.

2. Be intentional in your communication

When moving to a remote environment, things can fall through the proverbial cracks. So it’s more important than ever to make sure you over-communicate with team members during this time. Don’t assume they know what’s going on. They can’t hear you through the office wall or walk past you in the hallway. You have to recreate those scenarios in a virtual setting.

The main thing to focus on is not waiting until the last minute to share important information with staff. If organization plans are changing, make sure you communicate that information quickly and clearly to avoid anxiety or gossip.

3. Establish clear leadership

As in any crisis scenario, staff need to know who is making decisions and speaking on behalf of the organization. This helps maintain consistency of message during a media attack and alleviates staff stress. Share with your team who is making decisions about the organization’s plans and future. Then make sure those plans are conveyed through the proper chain of command.

This isn’t meant to be a top-down approach that squelches the voices of other staff, it’s simply the fastest way to make it through a crisis with minimal damage to the organization’s reputation and team spirit. It’s wise to hold online gatherings like a conference call or video chat to allow staff to express their thoughts or questions and then have leadership address them. This avoids toxic gossip or growing distrust in times of crisis.

The current crisis will pass. Our society will adjust to this new way of life and there will be many public policy lessons to be learned and acted upon. The main priority right now is to ensure the physical and mental health of your team.