• Jamie Read

Businesses should heed these 5 tips for communicating around COVID-19

As a former SARS screener, health communicator and crisis expert who has lived and worked in the Middle East during MERS and in Asia during the bird and swine flu, I've learned a lot about how to communicate effectively and to shift marketing strategy during global pandemic threats.

Here are five considerations for leaders on how to best communicate to stakeholders inside and outside their company during these uncertain times.

Students line up to sanitize their hands to avoid the contact of coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 28, 2020. AP Photo/Heng Sinith

1. Don't panic

This is a recommendation for leaders but also a message to share with employees. With fake news, social media and even governments fanning the flames of misinformation, it is the responsibility of companies to provide level-headed communications and accurate information while reinforcing policies designed to protect employees. This doesn't mean just spewing off statistics, however. Your employees may be genuinely scared and apprehensive about coming into the office. What's more, Gartner’s Brian Kropp suggests “employees worry about more than their physical safety, they worry about the potential disruptions to their work, and wonder how the organization plans to manage its operations.”

Communicate with a genuine, concerned tone that shows empathy, but also with a consistent, clear direction that instils confidence in your employees and helps them navigate their work with the least amount of added friction.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization provide good, scientifically-grounded recommendations and information that can guide you in countering the panic that can freeze your organization with fear.

2. Business as (un)usual

You've heard of the phrase 'prepare for the worst, hope for the best?' With over 80,000 cases now detected in over 50 countries, and the death toll rising to almost 3,000, organizations should consider all scenarios and put in place straightforward action plans for managing potential issues.

What happens if someone comes to work and spreads the virus, causing the majority of your workforce to be quarantined? What happens if your key manufacturer shuts down? What do you do if your employees are travelling and get caught inside a country with a sudden outbreak?

Each of these scenarios requires a different plan of action. But most importantly, they also require different levels of communications to varying tiers of stakeholders inside and outside the organization. I've seen countless issues turn into full-blown crises because communications was left as an afterthought. Ensure your comms teams have a seat at the table when formulating plans and challenge them to consider how to proactively communicate ahead of issues to ensure customers remain confident and employees best prepared.

Gallagher provides a great checklist for organizations to get them started on planning around issues and crisis.

3. Offline to Online

The coronavirus outbreak is beginning to disrupt businesses well beyond their own office buildings. From the cancellation of large conferences and tradeshows to travel bans and decimated retail footfall, the economic effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus are being felt around the world and in the latest stock market freefall. There's now even talk about cancelling the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

Companies that have already started on their road to digital transformation are much better prepared for business continuity in the face of this current outbreak. Remote workforce policies, diversified communications technologies, digital thought leadership and deep tech applications for optimizing supply chains are some of the ways that technology can help lessen the impact on your business. If you are not employing these solutions, there are stop-gap options you can consider, but this should serve as a wake-up call to begin the process of modernizing your business.

For example, if your B2B business relies heavily on trade shows, now is the right time to develop your content marketing plans, update your targeted lists and repurpose your budgets to feed your funnel.

Similarly, maybe you should be cancelling that business trip and set up a Zoom meeting instead.

4. Hyper transparency

A culture of trust and transparency is essential in today's business landscape. This is put to the test during issues such as the coronavirus outbreak. Leaders have a responsibility to their employees, to their customers and to their shareholders to communicate openly about the challenges, the plan and the actions being taken in response to the current issue.

Plan on shutting down your retail outlets? Don't let your consumers be surprised. Offer incentives to visit your online store by leveraging that data you've been collecting. Unsure about whether you will be able to meet your manufacturing quotas if you lose a quarter of your workforce? Share your action plan with customers and discuss options well before things start going wrong. Should you go ahead with that office party? Probably not, but it's worth polling employees about their thoughts for an alternative activity that can be done remotely.

A good example comes from Intel, who issued a stakeholder communication outlining their response to the coronavirus that focused first on employee wellbeing, on expectations for partners as well as on their plans for business continuity while they continued to monitor the issue. "We want you to know that we are doing everything we can to both protect workers and visitors and minimize the risk of disruption to our business," it said. The full statement is here.

By being consistent and genuine in your communications, you will build trust and confidence amongst your stakeholders while at the same time creating important dialogues to help you navigate the challenges your business is sure to face.

5. Closing the loop

Regardless of how your business fares during the COVID-19 outbreak, it will end. Many companies will be quick to get their business back to normal and put the challenges behind them. However, there will be lots to learn and reflect on, both from within your organization and from the larger business community.

Those companies that take the time to reflect on their response to the issue, measure the impact across internal and external metrics and immediately set resources against planning for future issues, will be the ones that ultimately succeed. And a major component of this post-coronavirus activity needs to be communicating to your employees, partners and customers about what you learned, what you are going to do different and how we can work together to ensure we are all better prepared for future global issues.

By heeding these five recommendations, businesses will be more prepared, mitigate the negative impact on business and build trust with their key stakeholders, inside and outside of their company.

Stay healthy everyone!

If you need help with your company's communications strategy, with crisis preparedness or B2B marketing during the coronavirus outbreak, the BriteBirch Collective has a global team of experts ready to mobilize for you. Contact us for a free consultation today.

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