Most companies have crisis communications plans in place, but few if any companies had plans prepared for dealing with SARS CoV-2, commonly referred to as the coronavirus.
It’s a disease that seems to have reached global proportions in a matter of days, a human crisis with an equally severe impact on business: both demand and supply are hard hit. Answers are elusive, even from experts, and rumors are spreading via social media (albeit it often unintentionally) almost as fast as the virus itself.
Comms is a Lifeline
This is a time when communications are more important than ever because, aside from ensuring the safety of your employees and suppliers, how you handle this crisis can be a decisive factor in whether your company survives or not. And while communications have become more complex in this electronic age, these same complex communications are also a lifeline to curbing panic and supporting the economic activity that is now rapidly shifting online as more and more people stay home.
At its core, crisis communication must be built on four pillars: honesty, transparency, accountability, and consistency. That means telling the truth, not hiding the facts, not blaming someone else, and doing what you’re saying, while also saying what you’re doing.
Your leadership “voice” is important—in video, live, or in print: most people are looking for a measured, authoritative ”voice” to tell them a) what has happened; b) what is now being done to fix the problem; c) that this situation will not go on forever; and d) what we can do in the meantime.
It’s your voice that’s important here.
Be careful not to overstep your role and start offering medical assessments or advice. Your role is to keep your team and customers together.
So refer your audience to useful sites and organizations, such as the CDC or WHO on topics outside your domain.
Crisis Comms Cornerstones
Your crisis communications should occur with regularity as developments unfold. There are some specific adaptations you can make for your various audiences.
Internal coms (employees and stakeholders):
Don’t avoid communicating about risks and challenges facing the company. This includes layoffs and other cutbacks, and how such decisions were made and what your future plans are. Keeping employees informed at all times will help them understand the difficult decisions you may have to make. Be clear, concise and sympathetic. Customer service teams need holding statements, updated regularly as the situation develops.
You may find that many of them are still actively engaged with your company online: for example, e-commerce giant Alibaba has reported a quadrupling of video game sales during the period Feb 5-24 from a year ago, and a 250% increase in yoga mat orders over the same time period.
But beyond wanting to continue financial transactions, your customers want to hear from you. Communicating your measures to handle the crisis will help diffuse its impact at the community level. Silence is NOT golden. Sharing facts in real-time, rather than waiting until you have all the answers, will go a long way towards encouraging trust.
Tailor your message to your audiences and use all the social media channels available to you: Twitter, your website, Instagram, YouTube, email. Consider public service sessions, such as streaming live sessions with experts who can legitimately discuss the virus and how to combat it, or who can advise on healthy cooking or what to expect if you’re quarantined. Such community-building activities are a safe way to interact with consumers and will build loyalty…if these activities are consistent with your corporate values.
Here are two corporate messages worth reviewing: the first concerns outdoor billboard advertising in Hangzhou, China, which was re-purposed as a corporate message to consumers by the online marketplace Yanxuan. Vogue’s Business of Fashion quotes the billboard message:
“Don’t look at this ad anymore. This was originally our promotional advertisement from 2.23-2.29, but it has been temporarily replaced. Although everything is on the right track, we still recommend that you don’t gather in public places and don’t stop for too long in front of this ad. Stay home, take care and wait for spring.”
In the US, Delta Airlines sent an email to its customers from CEO Ed Bastian on March 9, identifying the most likely questions customers might have and then providing concrete answers and reassurances about the company’s experience in crisis management, providing a link to more detailed information. Here are some key sections:
“A command center in Atlanta has been set up to guide our response, leading our global team of thousands of Delta professionals dedicated to this effort. That includes our reservations specialists handling thousands of incoming calls, our flight crews and Airport Customer Service (ACS) agents taking extra care of our customers, and our TechOps and operations coordination teams keeping the airline moving….we have a website on the COVID-19 situation that is continually being updated with cleaning policies and actions we’re implementing to keep you safe, ways you can stay healthy while flying, and changes to our flight schedules and waiver information. Transparency is one of our core values, and we are committed to keeping you fully informed as the situation evolves.”
Finally, a few words of caution. Beware of making things worse by communicating where you don’t belong, such as responding to abusive comments on social media, or of grandstanding donations you or your company may have made to alleviate the crisis. Such applause should come from earned media or your employees and customers themselves, not from you.
And keep in mind that this crisis, which will end and allow life to go on, is likely to be a game-changer in terms of what employees and customers want and expect from their leaders and from the companies they work for and patronize. Meanwhile, it’s important to keep the conversation going in as direct, timely, and honest a manner as possible.
This article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with author consent.