Operating during a global pandemic and period of uncertainty can stress even the most thorough of plans.
COVID-19, often referred to as coronavirus, has already had a massive impact on the global economy, and forced major disruptions, causing a shift in business operations across industries. In addition to the health and safety of their loved ones and employees, what’s top of mind for many company leaders is how to communicate to stakeholders during periods of uncertainty and restore confidence in the face of an unprecedented global challenge.
During this turbulent time, it is more important than ever that organizations, regardless of size or industry, revisit or create strategies, policies and procedures meant to protect employees, customers and operations.
In the absence of information from a company’s leadership, stakeholders will create their own narrative. Agile communications coupled with sensibly operational adjustments will play a decisive role in how organizations are able to manage their risk and reputational resilience. Below are some basic steps to consider for organizational leaders grappling with the situation.
First, Focus on the Core: Internal Audiences
Operational guidance for businesses is often rightly reflected in Emergency Action, Workplace Safety or Business Continuity plans. Recommendations specific to employers are also available from trusted resources including the Centers for Disease Control.
However, for many organizations, internal communications in the face of a pandemic is uncharted territory. A recent survey by Willis Towers Watson of 158 employers found that 70 percent of North American companies have already or plan to increase communications about COVID-19, as well as take additional action like increasing access to hand sanitizers. Communication with employees during a significant event, like the COVID-19 outbreak, should be a top priority for company leaders.
During a crisis, employees are mainly concerned about their physical safety, their job security and what their employer plans to do in order to maintain business operations. When crafting messages to employees, these concerns should be taken into consideration and addressed clearly and with empathy.
Employers seeking to communicate with their workforce about COVID-19 face a unique challenge: they must balance the desire to be helpful and provide information, without creating unintended consequences. Whether leaders choose to communicate with employees about COVID-19 via email, intranet, video broadcasts, FAQ documents, virtual or in-person town hall meetings or with signage posted in the workplace, care should be taken to ensure the message is clear, fact-based and credibly sourced, while still reflective of long-term organizational values.
It’s also imperative that employees have a mechanism to share input and feedback with management, especially if the workforce is distributed geographically and/or working from home. Invite questions and feedback and build a toolkit to address the urgent with an eye toward the future.
Connect with External Stakeholders
During a crisis, a strong reputation combined with defined company values can help companies navigate the challenges associated with communicating with customers, investors, suppliers and even competitors. Established values and reputation provide a valuable touchpoint for organizations to check their customer messages against.
When determining what to communicate externally, leaders should ask themselves: Does this message align with our values? Is this what our customers have come to expect from us?
If a company acts in a way that is misaligned with its purported values, it makes itself vulnerable to criticism. This is especially true in times of crisis. As concern regarding the humanitarian and economic impact of COVID-19 grows, companies can expect their customers to be sensitive about information they receive regarding the outbreak. Understand how your company’s product or service fits into the mosaic of the customer’s business continuity contingencies. Customers are taking note of who is responding well, and who is not.
Countless organizations across industries have chosen to be proactive in their communications with customers about COVID-19 by in a variety of ways, like sending emails directly to customers or posting public statements and videos to their website or social media channels. Having prepared statements that can easily be adapted and posted on social media will allow organizations to respond quickly to customer concerns.
In sum, the optimal approach combines messages with empathy, assurance and authority to build confidence in the brand and its leadership’s ability to operate during challenging times, as well as affinity for the organization that can carry on into the future.
Review and Recalibrate
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused organizations to reflect on their preparation and response plans, as the spread of the virus and its resulting economic and operational impacts are being experienced agnostic of industry. A hospital, for example, likely has a detailed plan in place to respond to or manage an outbreak of disease. But many industries like energy, technology and private equity may find themselves unprepared or underequipped to manage the response required for a pandemic like COVID-19 because they had not previously considered business interruption on a such a scale.
Now is the time for leaders to review existing plans and recalibrate as needed.
Organizations, especially those operating internationally, must ensure consistent and timely communications that provide stakeholders the information they need to feel confident and well-informed, or risk facing significant economic and reputational consequences.
Cyberattacks, natural disasters, workplace accidents, product failures and supply chain disruption are the most common scenarios around which Pierpont is asked to develop agile crisis communications plans. Pierpont’s comprehensive assessment process for crisis communications plan development includes identifying and evaluating your organization’s unique risks based on probability and impact.