Crisis managers should embrace human-centered design

Three ways you can apply HCD in issues management from Dentons’ Sarah Mann.

Executives must focus on 'righting the ship' in a crisis, Mann says.

Communicators invest significant time in researching and engaging with stakeholders, from employees and customers to reporters and investors. While getting to know these audiences may seem straightforward, understanding and reflecting their behaviors, interests and motivations in what leaders say — and do — is increasingly complex in today’s multi-modal information environment.

Amid these challenges, one school of thought offers a methodology to consider: human-centered design, or HCD. Popularized by IDEO, HCD puts your audience at the center of innovation and problem-solving. 

At its core, think about HCD as placing a handle on a door you “pull” to open — not “push.” Tapping into intuition, HCD plays a crucial role in developing websites, physical spaces, digital products and more.

By brainstorming empathetic messaging and deploying thoughtful tactics, communicators can leverage HCD to achieve business goals. In a crisis, HCD offers a useful framework for rapidly assessing and responding to a situation as it unfolds.

Here are three ways you can apply HCD in issues management:

Know your audience

Start by getting to know their individual characteristics — structure, location, interests — and their relationship with an organization — employee, customer, investor, etc.. Then, with a design thinker’s mindset, outline the state of their relationship with you, and what concerns they will want addressed to maintain, or alter, that relationship. Determine what encourages them to engage, respond or act, and apply it to create a tailored strategy and custom content. 

Meet people where they are

Some prefer to get information via social media, while others require direct emails or SMS. With HCD, put yourself in their shoes: get to know the ways they actively and passively consume news. Prepare analytics-backed research and maintain a CRM for segmentation so that when there is an urgent need to reach these groups quickly, you’re prepared to engage across the most effective channels at your disposal. 

Refine your message

Good communication can require listening more than speaking. Consistently monitor the landscape, the reception of your messaging and delivery and the impact of direct and indirect engagement. Use your findings to identify opportunities to adjust your strategy and message as an issue evolves. Explore alternative forums, experiment with different visuals and content and continue measuring your success.

When leaders face a crisis, they must focus on “righting the ship:” managing risk and inquiries with a level of transparency, ultimately allowing them to move forward. 

By embracing human-centered design, communicators can ask the right questions, introduce more empathy in crisis management and help leaders better “weather the storms” they face today and down the road.

Sarah Mann is associate partner at Dentons Global Advisors.

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