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Coronavirus crisis communications

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Many companies (I’d hazard most) don’t have a crisis communications plan. A vague idea about what to do in an emergency? Yes. A carefully considered and well rehearsed business continuity plan? Maybe. A clear idea of what to say to stakeholders either internally via the usual channels or externally via the media including, where appropriate, social media? No.

But coronavirus has the potential to make us all wish we had. With the level of infection and disruption now being anticipated at the very highest levels of government, businesses large and small (my own included) face an existential threat. And effective communication with staff, clients, suppliers and others over the coming weeks and months could (and I don’t think I’m overstating this) make a life and death difference. Not just company life and death either.

How so? Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can, for example, make the difference between a pissed off workforce who think their bosses really don’t care and a highly motivated workforce who feel valued and are prepared to be flexible in the face of adversity by working from home, working odd hours, foregoing bonuses, taking unpaid leave…

Because clear, consistent, truthful and timely communications can persuade suppliers to delay issuing that invoice even though they’re experiencing similar cash flow problems. Because effective communication can lower the expectation and heighten the appreciation of customers.

But while being truthful should come naturally 😂 being clear, consistent and timely needs planning and practice.

“The virus is on us. Isn’t it too late now?”

It’s never too late to make a plan which, in any case, doesn’t need to take long – especially in smaller, less complex organisations. The first planning step is to work out what you need/want to say and to who: in other words your key messages and your target audiences. The next step is to map the audiences to what become your target media and channels – internal email, the intranet, external media the internet. Make sure those key messages are clear and concise and can be readily understood by the audience. You might be inclined to say “we’re facing challenges on the supply side of our business so our customers may experience issues with their orders.” Your customers would prefer you to say: “We’re sorry but because of coronavirus it may take us a little bit longer to deliver your parcel. We know you’ll understand. And here, as a thank you for your patience, is a discount code for your next order.”

Being consistent means everybody is communicating the same message (not that the message can’t change – flexibility is key in a crisis). A lack of consistency can lead to confusion. If your line manager is saying staff can work from home but your boss says you’ve got to come to work unless you’re ill you’re likely to lose faith in both.

Being truthful is, I hope, self-explanatory. I may be naive, but honesty and integrity are rewarded. People want to work for and with organisations that genuinely embrace these things. Yes, price is important but value can be expressed in other ways. So what I mean here is more about being open. The truth will out (and with social media probably sooner rather than later) so why hold back. Imagine the furore restaurant chain would face if it didn’t reveal kitchen or wait staff had fallen ill with the virus until two weeks after the outbreak?

Being timely is tied into the above. When a situation is rapidly evolving there’s an inclination to keep quiet until the picture is clearer. But witness the backlash the government has experienced by only issuing virus updates weekly. A backlash so significant that it’s backed down. A “communications fumble” as the Chief Medical Officer admitted. That position was clearly untenable for UK plc and should be for all companies in these worrying times. I’m not suggesting you need to issue a running commentary to staff or in the media. But if the gaps between company bulletins are too long then all sorts of information can rush into the vacuum. Information over which you have no control. In a word or two: fake news.

To help you control the message and draw up and execute your own crisis comms plans we’ll be running a series of webinars for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak. More details to follow. But if you’d like to sign up email me – richard@acmtraining.co.uk and I’ll be sure to send you a link and access code.


1 thought on “Coronavirus crisis communications

  1. Interesting footnote to this. Working today with a public health professional who’s training fellow professionals to mask-up, take swabs, advise the public etc and she told me a lot of people they meet don’t understand the concept of “self isolation” and are using plain English instead. “Stay at home for 14 days and don’t go out” may not sound as portentous but may just be more effective. Crisis comms needs to account for how the message is received not just how it is transmitted. Received AND understood is the crucial bit.

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