Marjani Williams
Marjani Williams

The last two years have brought about practically every crisis possible. From the COVID-19 pandemic to social and racial injustice, the world is desperately trying to keep up with managing and communicating to the public. While media coverage of these lingering issues continues, only a small portion of stories focus on the lessons we can all learn concerning insufficient and ineffective communications to communities of color and historically disadvantaged populations. As we set new milestones for the pandemic and its ripple effects, the message for communicators is clear: We must prepare crisis communications plans that fully integrate equitable strategies and actions while reducing harm to our workforces and vulnerable external populations. This lesson isn’t only critical to the success of our communications efforts but can be a matter of sink or swim for organizations of all sizes.

Gatekeepers: the role of communicators

Most PR and communications professionals know the ABCs of crisis planning: have a plan ready for multiple situations and scenarios, get in front of the crisis ASAP and prepare your spokespeople.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
(view PDF version)

There are so many other details that you need to consider and explore, including understanding the complexities of your audience to provide better strategic counsel to executives, your communications team and other stakeholders.

As communicators, we’re tasked with appropriate planning and distribution of information, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s the fact that more needs to be done. As the gatekeepers of information vital to public awareness and directly connected to brand reputation and responsibility, we must be prepared to address people from all backgrounds effectively. We’ve learned that to do this, we must change our approach. Diverse populations aren’t a monolith; one size doesn’t fit all when communicating a crisis.

Understanding your audience

For some, understanding your audience may seem like a no-brainer, but times have drastically changed from 20—or even five—years ago. Understanding who you’re communicating with can encompass different factors, including race, age and socioeconomic status. You can be sure that representation is a key aspect when considering any of those factors.

For example, when it comes to information regarding the pandemic, Annals of Internal Medicine recapped a study by Marcella Alsan et al., finding that African Americans who saw messages delivered by physicians of color received those messages better. According to the article, African Americans were immensely impacted by COVID-19, making up 13.5 percent of cases and 26.4 percent of deaths, but only making up 12 percent of the U.S. population. This is a crucial learning moment, not just for public health officials but for all organizations and companies, which is to make sure you have the appropriate people and leaders delivering the message. While this will vary for different organizations, you have to recognize that representation matters in any message you’re trying to convey. This is just one example of how you can have better message penetration with diverse and underserved communities in a crisis.

Another way to understand your audience is to recognize the varying degrees of cultures and their significance to your business. A recent McKinsey study, “Black consumers: Where to invest for equity,” breaks down the Black community in terms of spending power, neighborhood types and how companies can invest in them. 68 percent of survey respondents show loyalty to brands that meet their needs; this statistic is crucial when thinking about any messaging, especially in a crisis. The study adds that Black consumers have dissatisfaction with the lack of DE&I efforts, such as marketing programs that don’t reflect them across various industries from consumer technology (40 percent) to Health and Wellness (38 percent). This is a key indicator that we must change our approach as communicators. With the potential spending power of over $1 trillion in 2030, organizations must make an effort to communicate appropriately to this diverse community or risk losing or alienating a large profit margin.

Evaluate, equip and empower your communications team

Communications professionals are key in any crisis and essential workers to any organization. We’re often only called upon to deal with a crisis when it happens, but we are—or should be—ready to prepare leadership well in advance of a crisis. We’re responsible for advising leaders and clients to help them prepare and deliver the right information, in the right tone, at the right time, to the right audiences. This foundational information was missed in many responses because of a lack of preparation and evaluation through the use of quantitative and qualitative research.

If your communications team doesn’t have a plan that includes an understanding of diverse and ethnic groups, it’s lacking in a key aspect and often reflects a lack of diversity on the team itself. Now more than ever, it’s imperative to evaluate and equip your current team with the education, training and staff needed to address any group or community in a crisis effectively. This can include hiring a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position, which is beneficial for all aspects of communication within an organization.

Empower your communications team to familiarize themselves with the latest insights and regular crisis plan training to fully integrate diversity messaging. Create an environment where your team is prepared to discuss a crisis with leadership in what may be an uncomfortable situation. Discussing race and diversity isn’t an easy subject, but as we’ve seen over the past two years, so many organizations have had to address it. Like the pandemic, the call for social and racial justice showed the lack of understanding in corporate America and led to a mad dash to hire DE&I professionals.

Bottom line: enlightened DE&I policies are smart business

As we approach year three in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the call for increased DE&I isn’t going anywhere, there are some key takeaways we can all leverage to build more effective and inclusive crisis communications plans.

A crisis plan is much more than a book that sits on a shelf. It’s a core document of an organization that should be updated regularly and with an equity lens. We risk widening the disparity gap if we don’t. Understanding your audience and appropriately engaging your communications team are critical components of preparedness and crisis planning as it supports the ongoing development of better plans for future events.

We may not know what’s next, but what did we learn? As situations, people and companies evolve, we must revisit and reflect on critical considerations and adjust accordingly to prepare for this ever-changing world.

What we do matters and more importantly, what we say and who we say it to matters. Like many people of color during the pandemic, we, as communicators, are on the frontlines. What we do and say impacts lives.

As stewards of corporate reputation and responsible citizens, we must ask ourselves: are we ready for the next crisis? And, more importantly: are we ready to ensure that our company’s and client’s communications resonate with communities of color?


Marjani Williams is Vice President of Client Service at G&S Business Communications.