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Navigating Through the COVID-19 Storm

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Stock markets have crashed, borders are closing, and it appears the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak will continue to get worse before it gets better. The impact on businesses, from travel bans to supply and delivery delays to production and forecast adjustments, is already being felt everywhere. As organizations worldwide adjust to this uncertainty, communication professionals need to keep a clear head, stay the course and use the current “down time” productively.

Fight the media panic with facts and reason

“Our greatest enemy right now is not the coronavirus itself,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) at a press briefing on 20 February. “It’s fear, rumors and stigma. And our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity.”

It may seem as though there are as many rumors and myths as there are infected people. Make sure you only choose sources of information that can be verified and trusted, such as the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and your national health authorities.

Appoint someone as the single point of contact in your organization with the task of checking for updates daily and debunking rumors.

Continue to engage with your stakeholders

Remember this is a people problem and don’t lose sight of this when trying to mitigate the business impact. Make your communication people-oriented and be sensitive to your stakeholders’ concerns.

Key stakeholders include staff, customers, suppliers, contractors, regulators (as necessary), the wider community, the media and other stakeholders specific to your business interactions.

Though you may have seriously reduced the number of face-to-face meetings, business must go on. So, use every available virtual channel to communicate with your stakeholders. Let them know how your company is dealing with the situation. Be proactive in communicating challenges and impact. Remember, this crisis is being felt by everyone, so sometimes a phone call can be your most powerful tool.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Your communication objectives and priorities must focus on providing accurate, clear, consistent, timely and useful information, reassurance about job security and showing that you are in control.

Working from home (WFH) considerations

– How many staff can actually work from home?
– What is the company’s IT network capacity to support staff working from home?
– Who has a work laptop? What happens if employees don’t have their work laptop at home? Can staff use their own devices?
– Do you have a way of contacting staff who don’t have company equipment (phones, laptops, etc.)?
– Do you need to purchase more laptops?
– What are employees’ home circumstances?

Create a list of FAQs and update it daily. Broadcast or publish FAQs across every available channel, from bulletin boards, websites, intranets, staff helplines, and social media. Fortunately, technology is on our side, so make the most of a range of virtual communication tools such as WhatsApp groups, Yammer, Skype/Teams/Zoom, and virtual town halls, to name a few.

Be out there, often, and repeat messages. Now is not the time to be stingy with information.

While core messages should align across all stakeholder groups, adjust your tone for each. For instance, don’t be paternalistic or dismissive of the threat with employees; people will be afraid, so accept it. The greatest threats to effective communication in these circumstances are caused by more uncertainty compounded by myths, rumors, scare stories, speculation, cover-ups or outright lying. Be vigilant and take immediate action to correct misinformation.

Agree on who will communicate and how. Have a couple of trained media spokespersons ready. This can be a very intense and tiring job and relief is needed to stay the course. Appoint someone to communicate with employees. Ideally, this person should be known and trusted by them. Credibility is critical.

Last but not least, be prepared to act quickly, so ensure you have a fast-track approval protocol for all internal and external statements in place.

Coordinate your response

The COVID-19 situation requires a number of corporate functions to be heavily engaged in the response and mitigation. HR, communication, legal, facilities, management/security and IT, coordinate closely and ensure that the response is seamless.

Meet daily with the appointed crisis team or task force to avoid gaps and conflicting information.

Therefore, meet daily with the appointed crisis team or task force to avoid gaps and conflicting information. This approach must remain through the peak of the crisis and beyond when returning to normal, especially to mitigate potential negative consequences such as the legal implications highlighted below.

Help your teams adjust to working from home

If your organization decides to send large numbers of staff to work from home, communication will be critical as staff who are not used to this approach can quickly become disengaged.

Even if technology makes remote work possible, accept that it may not be easy for everyone. Limited space, noise, lack of privacy and work structure, etc. are some of the challenges your employees may face. Therefore, offer guidelines to facilitate productivity in these circumstances and encourage closer interface with team leaders and supervisors. Accept that you many have to adjust KPIs.

Remember, working from home will generate increased help desk calls to IT, so make sure you have the capacity to cope.

Worst-case scenario planning

Crises typically get worse before they get better, and unexpected aggravations can emerge suddenly from nowhere. Who could imagine that a quarantine hotel in China would collapse and cause more tragic loss of life?

In the midst of a crisis, it is not always easy to anticipate how much worse the situation can get, yet this is possibly one of the most empowering crisis leadership traits that helps teams navigate through a storm and emerge stronger from it. Start with a good stakeholder map highlighting friends and foes and flagging potential stakeholder actions and negative outcomes

So, prepare for the worst now. For instance, if an employee dies as a result of the virus, what would you say to whom and how? Now is the time to draft your messages and communication around a number of worsening scenarios so that you have this ready to issue instantly when you need it.

You’ll also need to consider the legal angles that may emerge from this situation, from litigation to the ability to apply force majeure coverage, the legal requirements of protecting employees from physical harm at work (which vary from country to country), the effects of stress and anxiety related to coronavirus infection, as well as data privacy issues to name a few.

Mitigate the threats

While the human angle cannot be underestimated, possibly the biggest business risk is financial: from loss of goods to loss of customers to loss of markets and loss of revenue. Travel and tourism are already facing unprecedented scale-back. Supply chains with high turnover (e.g. the food industry) are likely to be hard hit. Deliveries will be disrupted and in some cases, you may not be able to contact suppliers. Small companies unlikely to have a plan may be less likely to survive.

While these operational, business and financial aspects fall outside the scope of communication professionals’ activities, communicators must be included in the response planning to ensure stakeholders continue to be engaged and decisions and actions are advised timely and credibly. This is a vital cornerstone of the post-crisis trust retention and recovery process.

In 2020, uncertainty is the new certainty

For small businesses and multinationals alike, this situation can be a time to rethink corporate strategies. Instead of plowing through with what was decided in 2019, now would be a good time to revise the company’s strategies based on different escalating scenarios.

Use your time productively

In this uncertain context, the tendency may be to wait and see how the situation evolves, put off decisions or halt current projects. Instead, invest your time on other important tasks not impacted by the crisis and often at the bottom of the pile, be it housekeeping, new product development, virtual team building efforts, etc. It’s not only good for morale, but it will put you in a better position to emerge stronger on the other side.

Every crisis gives organizations the opportunity to rethink their way of working and test how they operate under pressure. This does not need to be time wasted.

Caroline Sapriel

Caroline Sapriel is the founder and managing partner of CS&A International, a global risk and crisis management consulting firm working with multinational clients across industry sectors in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, Europe, and the Americas. With over 25 years experience in risk and crisis management, she is recognized as a leader in her profession and acknowledged for her ability to provide customized, results-driven counsel and training at the highest level. Caroline speaks on risk and crisis management at international conferences regularly. She has published articles and co-authored two books as well as contributed the chapter on crisis management to IABC’s Handbook of Organizational Communication. She has been a member of IABC since 1987 and has served on chapter boards in Hong Kong and Brussels as well as been a founding member of IABC's Ethics Committee. She has also spoken on crisis management and communication at several World and Regional Conferences. Caroline also lectures on crisis management at the University of Antwerp.

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