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The COVID-19 Outbreak Is a Crisis: Have you considered all the issues?

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The new coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, is a crisis with complex potential impacts on your organization. There are key principles of crisis management that might have gotten lost in the initial noise surrounding the disease’s spread. An approach that’s grounded in these principles can prepare your organization for what may come next.

While the situation changes hour by hour, crisis teams have to continually plan for the worst. Crisis teams and communication professionals also face the challenge of holding on to the management attention that this crisis will need not just for the next week, but potentially for the next few months.

Here are some essential crisis management tools to guide you through this crisis, and future ones like it.

Know your stakeholders

Honestly, it’s a bit late in the game to be starting stakeholder mapping for this particular crisis. Now is when this tool is essential to ensure you are tailoring your message to your audiences’ needs.

Guiding principles

CS&A’s 10 commandments of crisis management, which serve as the basis for the guidance in this article, also provide a solid foundation to ensure that your response is the best it can be.

This crisis raises some stakeholder considerations that are unusual: For every individual stakeholder there is an element of personal risk. In other words, in many places around the world when someone starts to feel a bit unwell, they will inevitably be asking themselves, Do I have it?

This level of anxiety means all your communications must strike a reassuring tone, because everyone is experiencing a frisson of fear. Rumors and misinformation can amplify the effect on stakeholders because of that underlying personal fear.

Stakeholders will also be impacted differently depending on their culture and geography. How you engage with stakeholders in countries where government authorities are credible and already out there communicating well will be very different from countries where the opposite is the case. Stakeholders based in China, and even stakeholders who look Chinese, are also facing unique impacts that need to be taken into account. Compare this to Germany, where only 10% of respondents to a ZDF survey on 7 February felt their personal health was at risk.

Stakeholder perceptions are reality

Best practice

The Singapore Ministry of Health is an example of how a credible, responsive authority communicates with the public. They have set up:

• A website with clearly defined stakeholder groups (e.g. schools, hospitals, travelers) and what it is asking them to do.
• A WhatsApp group sending messages at least twice daily with an update on cases.
• Videos of key leaders posted on social media with advice on how to respond.
• Social media posts with the same messaging.

Now that reliable data is starting to come in, you might be tempted to conclude that this is not a real crisis, just a mass panic event. In fact, it doesn’t make any difference: Your organization’s reaction should be the same whether the threat is real, imagined or just irrationally inflated.

This means your stakeholder communications need to accept that reality and craft your message accordingly. Your aim will be to demonstrate that you understand their concerns and are putting their safety first.

Don’t deny the validity of stakeholders’ perception that they are in real danger. Playing down the potential impact of the crisis will undermine your message and your credibility.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

In a crisis like a disease outbreak that evokes fear, your organization needs to establish itself as a voice of authority that stakeholders can trust. Even if your organization has little risk of immediate impact, you have to get out in front of the issue.

Messaging should communicate that you are in control (even if that control is tenuous and limited). Demonstrate action of some sort to send that message.

You’ll also want to communicate more frequently than you think is sufficient. Be ready to react instantly if misinformation starts to spread and repeat existing messaging whenever there is no new news to report.

The challenge here is how to strike a tone that is reassuring but sufficiently serious. If someone in the office has gone home with a cough, what do you tell other staff members?

Planning for the worst

Be sensitive about different stakeholder groups

We have noticed organizations issuing notices to suppliers banning all face-to-face meetings. Striking the right tone on such a message is difficult: Why should suppliers be singled out for special treatment? Does that mean they matter less? That they are a greater risk? If you are going to single out a stakeholder group for special treatment, be clear on your reasons and ensure it is consistent with the overall aims of your messaging and long-term strategy.

So let’s assume your team has their heads around the COVID-19 crisis and its potential impact on your organization and its stakeholders. You have your stakeholder engagement working and you’re communicating with the right tone at the right time and having the right impact.

What could possibly go wrong? And if it does, are you ready for it?

The obvious “what if” to consider: What if another crisis impacts your organization tomorrow?

The COVID-19 crisis may actually make this more likely to happen, simply because when people are scared, they tend to make worse decisions and overreact. How are you going to gather the necessary resources and adequately prioritize if something else happens that needs your crisis team’s attention?

The other “what if” that needs some careful thought is how to manage if an employee at an essential facility is quarantined. Fortunately, the test procedures for this virus are much quicker than previous similar outbreaks, but can you afford to wait to tell other employees until the test results are known? How do you ensure you put people’s safety first?

Put people first

This crisis is going to have a significant economic impact globally. That cannot get in the way of our priorities around the safety of people and the environment.

This may become an issue in unexpected ways. For example, what will be the impact of Cathay Pacific’s decision to require staff to take leave without pay. It was perhaps a necessary decision, but was it wise?

Potential longer-term impacts

We are already seeing a precipitous decline in human interaction in daily life in affected areas. Staff are working from home, those who are not have a physical barrier up in the form of masks. People are not meeting—for business or social purposes. Consider the potential impact this has on stakeholder communities and whether there are steps we should be taking to counteract the impact of this kind of isolation.

BC Training, a U.K.-based business continuity training company, developed the concept of a “pandemic operating regime.” Does the increasing likelihood of this kind of crisis becoming more frequent mean you should consider establishing such a regime in your organization?

As we navigate through this crisis, reflecting on these fundamental principles regularly will help ground your communication and keep your organization resilient.

Cathy Heeley

Cathy Heeley is a Singapore-based associate with CS&A International. With more than 20 years' experience working with a top-tier Australian law firm as well as in-house legal counsel with Kraft Foods, Mondelez International, Croda and Syngenta covering Asia Pacific, she brings a wide range of skills in crisis management. She has managed crises involving government regulators in law enforcement, tax, customs, food safety, corruption, religion, plant safety and labor relations in the food and chemicals industries.

Comments

  1. Should the company I work for notify possibly affected employees when coworkers are in quarantine awaiting results of COVID19 testing? ” Rumor has it” that two employees at my plant have contracted the virus, and yet management has of yet not informed any employee.

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