How to communicate in a crisis

Our hearts go out to all those Queenslanders who have lost homes, lifetime mementos and, most tragically, loved ones.  As business owners our thoughts are also with the small to medium businesses whose livelihoods may well be affected for months to come.

But as always in times of tragedy and devastation there have been some beacons of light. Anna Bligh for one. Aspiring politicians – and most of those currently serving, including our Prime Minister, could learn some valuable lessons from the leadership she has demonstrated and the way in which she has communicated with the people of Queensland. It’s a text book study on how to communicate in a crisis.

In recent days – and on a more prosaic level, we’ve come across another excellent example of crisis communication – from a small technology company (20 employees) that provides web design and hosting services.

Here’s what they wrote:

Email subject: Service status in the Qld flood crisis

Dear Magicdust Clients,

Some of you are aware that our hosting servers are located in our datacentre in the Brisbane CBD and we want to give you all an update in light of the flood situation in Brisbane.

We wish to assure you that our datacentre is safe and secure. Not only is the datacentre on one of Brisbane CBD’s more geographically elevated areas, but is also a number of storeys up in the building. Our power infrastructure is also elevated and is located above the carpark, which remains dry.

Equipment is safe from the water, and we have no concerns of that changing.

Reports from Energex indicate a high chance of power grids running close to the river being brought down to remove risks associated with power and water. As the datacentre is not located in any zones specifically addressed so far, we do not believe there is a cause for alarm, however, we remain fixed on updates and ready for action.

In the event that our power grid is selected for shutdown, we will be taking steps beforehand to transfer power consumption of the facility to a diesel power generator. Our current diesel availability will allow the facility to continue operating for around 24 hours.

At this time we would appreciate that you only submit urgent email tickets to our support desk because we are currently experiencing an abnormally high volume of ticket enquires, and some delays may be expected. We appreciate your cooperation with this.

We would also like to apologise for the recent inability to login to the  eWeb content management system. Our delays with correcting the errors were due to technicians at our datacentre not being able to get to work because of the flood, and the data centre subsequently being understaffed. The errors, however, have now been fixed and you should be able to edit your website as normal.

We wish you the highest safety if you happen to be in one of the troubled flood zones.

Take care

Magicdust Support and Operations Team

This letter gets it right: it explains the problem, provides reassurance, explains why alternative solutions, if required, are the logical way forward,  shows empathy for those negatively affected and ends on a note of hope.

It also deserves high marks for structure, content and style – starting at the top with a clear email subject line.

Since we collect examples of good communication for the business writing courses we teach, one of our writers contacted Magicdust to find out the memo’s origins. She was impressed to hear it was an inside job – a collective effort by the data room team and others in the operations and support area.

They decided to write the letter after getting anxious calls from clients, many of them small businesses, worrying whether their websites were safe and concerned because they hadn’t received a reply online.

The message got a great response. Many clients emailed back thanking them.

As far as we’re concerned this is a great example of practice validating communications theory.  We also note the memo was from the support and operations team. Those who initiated it were on the front line and understood exactly what people needed to know.

Finally, its clarity and directness come from being created for clients, not shareholders and the media – those elements that often lead to corporate strangulation of announcements.

Well done Magicdust!


Derryn Heilbuth has worked as a newspaper, magazine and television journalist. Before founding Businesswriters & Design, Derryn was Publications Editor at Westpac Banking Corporation. She has an Honours degree in English, a Masters degree in journalism, has written a book on small business, taught at university and TAFE and now conducts seminars on better business writing and strategic writing. In addition to her broad corporate communications and publishing experience, Derryn has developed a particular expertise in sustainability communications.

Posted in Sustainability communications

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