The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Sport organizations around the world are in crisis communications mode, trying to figure out the best ways to use new technologies and compelling content to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many scramble to react to the latest development, and others sit paralyzed by indecision, there are well-researched and time-tested principles that can provide sport leaders with a greater sense of control over a situation that can feel completely overwhelming.

What’s first?

Start with a one-word question: Why?

Put another way: What specific outcomes does the organization hope to achieve through its communications efforts?

Conversations about communications often start with reference to a specific product or activity: “We need to write an email for staff and volunteers”; “What about a video message to calm the athletes and parents?”; “We’re looking at hosting some online video chats to connect with our members”; or, “We should be putting out more content through our social media channels.”

This is the wrong place to start.

Before confidently confirming the How, one needs to know the Why.

What are the communications objectives? What’s the problem or issue to be addressed? What would success look like? What’s the desired impact? And what can be measured?

The Why describes the destination. The How describes the strategies to get there.

So, what is your Why?

For most sport organizations, the Why boils down to the brand. At a minimum, the goal is to mitigate any negative impact on corporate reputation and on relationships with key internal and external stakeholders. At best, the objective should be to reinforce the core brand attributes and enhance the organization’s reputation through the compassion and competence of its response to the crisis.

Your Why could include statements like:

  • To demonstrate both competence and compassion in handling all aspects of the crisis and to incorporate lessons learned going forward;
  • To act in ways that are fully consistent with our corporate values and to consistently model our core brand attributes.
  • To demonstrate a commitment to timely, transparent and fulsome communication; and
  • To demonstrate a commitment to going “above and beyond” wherever appropriate and feasible.

If handled well, an organization can come out the other side of a crisis with a clearer vision, better relationships, and a stronger overall brand.

What’s next?

Designing and executing a crisis communications strategy can be a daunting task. Success depends on keeping an eye on the Why, relying on proven principles, and choosing the simple answer over the complex one whenever possible.

Here are four guiding principles to help frame an effective approach to communications through the pandemic period (and beyond):

  1. Empathize. First and foremost, sport leaders must demonstrate they care about the people: athletes, coaches, parents, members, staff, volunteers, sponsors, etc. In the absence of authentic empathy, the audience will be far less inclined to hear the messages. “Authentic” is essential – it’s not possible to fake compassion.
  2. Focus on Action. Build communications content around what’s being done, more than what’s being said. Use a variety of communications channels to tell key audiences about the specific decisions and actions being taken to competently manage the crisis, to take care of them, and to invite their input.
  3. Keep it simple. This is a time of intense anxiety and uncertainty. In the midst of all the “noise” generated by countless individuals and organizations (e.g., news media, corporate statements, social media activity), cut through the clutter by keeping communications concise and straightforward.
  4. The medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan’s insight is as relevant today as it was in 1964. It means choosing the communications channel carefully. For example, leaders will be far more successful conveying genuine empathy when using a medium that allows for nuance and emotion – an audio or video message will do this far better than an email. An interactive, two-way approach (e.g., online meeting, news conference, conference call) allows for real-time questions and clarification which can be vitally important during a time of crisis.

There is no doubt that sport leaders are feeling overwhelmed, knowing they need to communicate but not entirely sure about next steps. The best place to start is with the Why. Clearly defining the destination makes getting there a whole lot easier.


About the Author(s)

Derek Johnston is the President of Face Value Communications Inc. Over the last 20 years, Face Value has supported more than 20 different national and multi-service sport organizations with strategic communications advice, facilitation and executive coaching. As a volunteer, Derek has served on Team Canada Mission Staff at multiple Major Games in places like Australia, Malaysia and the UK, and has coached soccer and triathlon for a total of 25 years.