In the era of pervasive and instant communications, the coronavirus situation leads every news update and is rapidly intensifying. Officials are doing their best to downplay the impact of the virus, but volatile stock markets and growing number of cases feed the global fear and thus provide too easy a headline.
The geographic and numerical escalation of the virus poses a clear operational disruption for most companies that will inevitability impact their bottom lines. Many are freezing travel, canceling events or allowing employees to work from home. Adding a communications misstep to the already fragile environment could be overwhelming to a company well beyond the virus’ arrival.
Here are a few things to remember when facing the question of how to communicate around the coronavirus to stakeholders.
Practice empathy, transparency and being responsive.
A dangerous new threat doesn’t mean we should forget about the fundamentals of any crisis response. Audiences have the same need to be heard and empathized with, just as they expect to be spoken to with transparency and clarity. As with any crisis scenario, you must demonstrate that you understand their concerns. Although your operational response may be rigid and calculated, no one wants to be spoken to in that manner. Transparency also needs to be fundamental to your communications. If you try to hide the impact or a deficiency, it will come back to haunt your organization. For that reason, it remains important to reassure key audiences that you have a plan and to help them understand it. Prove to them that you realize the significance of the situation and are as prepared as possible to address whatever happens.
Have an escalation plan.
Understanding the current situation and how you will respond is important from the standpoint of having a functional crisis plan in place. However, failure to account for an escalation puts your organization in as much or more risk as you would have been without any crisis plan at all. For example, the response to the coronavirus today may be completely different than if your governor declares a state of emergency and shuts down state government and prohibits all but essential travel. Make sure you also know who the point of contact in each situation will be as well as the supporting parties such as health professionals within your organization, and the means in which people will communicate with you.
We all have different stakeholders with varying levels of priority across our organizations. Typically during a public health risk, employees are your top priority for communications. But evaluate all stakeholders to determine the priority and frequency of communications with each. Again, empathy, transparency and responsiveness should be at the core the communications effort. When there is a notable threat such as a public health crisis, updating these priority stakeholders regularly is a must. It is nearly impossible to over-communicate with someone who may feel they are at risk of something as such potentially dangerous as coronavirus.
Depend on experts.
In the same way that we depend on the National Weather Service in preparing for an oncoming hurricane or flood, defer to the expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and/or the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in communications about the coronavirus situation. Being able to refer to and rely upon their guidance will not only help add credibility to your efforts but will give you protection should events change rapidly against your favor.
Seek help from professionals.
While you live inside the storm, valuable perspective will come from those on the outside. Retaining experienced public relations help can be invaluable before and during a crisis with the potential for reputational harm. Chernoff Newman has provided this type of specialized counsel and services for many organizations in the Carolinas and worldwide. Whether you turn to us or another firm, the ability to stress test your communications plan will serve your organization greatly in the long run.