18 February, 2020
As the COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) outbreak spreads around the world, so can misinformation. Amid the noise, it’s up to organisations to to provide accurate information. While the full economic impact of the outbreak is still to be felt, supply chains could be disrupted and customers inconvenienced. For now, this is primarily about people. They are looking for reassurance from sources they trust.
Communication strategy during these types of events, however long they may last, can be critical, and the same three basic principles of communication apply: transparency, compassion, and ownership. But the COVID-19 outbreak is a complex event that affects many elements of a business – so what else can organisations do?
Know your audience. While the immediate priority should be employees in infected regions and those who may be at risk, a far wider audience will be looking to the organisation for reassurance and leadership. Every interaction should reinforce brand strategy and the image of a purposeful and empathetic organisation.
Keep messaging clear and consistent. An honest assessment of what the organisation can do is essential, as is the recognition that some things will be outside of the organisation’s control. The main message is that the organisation is doing all it can, and we’re all in this together.
Focus on perspective. There’s an important balance to be struck between transparency – being open about the potential risks – and managing the fear factor. Social and traditional media can stoke alarm but in terms of global population, mortality rate, and the spread of infection, COVID-19 is still relatively confined. Without downplaying the risks, help people keep the event in perspective.
Duty of care comes first. If employees become infected, the priority is fulfilling the organisation’s duty of care to them, their families and colleagues. But there are other, less urgent, duties to consider. If the supply chain is disrupted customers will be affected, but if the impact is restricted to inconvenience, it’s because the organisation is doing all it can to protect its people and the wider public. Integrity matters.
Scan the horizon. These types of events can unfold in unexpected ways, so preparing for a range of scenarios, even the seemingly unlikely, could help prepare the organization for the future. . What’s the worst that could happen? How could the organisation’s reputation be affected? What mitigating action could we take in each scenario?
Keep communication flowing in both directions. Effectively tracking risks requires the help of the wider organisational community – the education sector, for example, has faced particular challenges as institutions need to know quickly if their students have been to, or have met with visitors from, affected areas. Dedicated hotlines and FAQs can help to target specific groups and encourage the flow of information.
Look out for unintended consequences. Misinformation around these types of events may raise the risk of discrimination against particular communities This is a time to reinforce corporate messages of inclusion and quickly counter any suggestions of prejudice.
While there is still a long way to go, the business community has reacted quickly and effectively, focusing on getting the basics of crisis communication right. COVID-19 is a daunting test, but by doing the basics well, organisations can set themselves up to best support their employees, customers, and clients now and in the future.