PART II: The COVID-19 pandemic and how your company should respond
BY: ZOHARE ALI SHARIFF, CEO, ASIATIC PUBLIC RELATIONS NETWORK (PRIVATE) LIMITED
Continuing where we left off in Part I of this series, this write-up will now comment on the critical role played by an organization’s communications function.
In a crisis the company cannot under any circumstances go silent. It has been previously said that the pandemic has resulted in great uncertainty, fear, disorientation, mistrust and even panic. Most people are greatly emotionally disturbed, and minds are overwhelmed with thoughts of what the future will be.
A solid public relations and communications function can make or break a company’s reputation in this highly volatile scenario. Even if a company has a well-staffed internal communications department, any crisis, and especially a crisis of colossal proportion, requires bringing on board a highly experienced and qualified agency with proven expertise in various areas like strategic writing, media engagement, digital media outreach, crisis scenarios planning and still others.
The essential steps to be undertaken immediately by the communications function are as given below.
a. Select the communication channels and establish protocols for regular communication with all employees. The channels can include an existing intranet which is already available, and for the leadership group and/or for the crisis teams’ leaders, a WhatsApp group may work best, restricting the flow of communication on specific subjects to just those who need to know.
Have a back-up channel of communication also in case the primary one becomes unavailable at any time.
b. Establish 2-way communication, allowing employees to reach in to the management as well with their concerns and questions, and even more importantly to report immediately if either they themselves or any member of their family they live with comes down with the virus.
c. Prepare and post a FAQ document on the selected channel for internal communications with the employees. The content of this document can be first generated by the crisis team or teams and then vetted by the senior management.
d. In times of crisis, all stakeholders, including the employees, want to hear from the Top Gun – the company CEO / MD / President. So at least the very first message to all employees needs to go out from the CEO, with daily messages or posts then going out from the appointed COVID-19 Response spokesperson.
e. Essentially the employees particularly want to know what steps the company has taken to protect its employees. For example, what are the measures that have been put in place for those employees who cannot work from home, and have to come to the place of work as required by their job function, as in the case of production floor workers?
f. Each company needs to decide what the frequency of internal communication should be – daily, or on alternate days, or 2-3 times per week on pre-fixed days, or even just once a week. It is to be remembered that this crisis by all indications is going to be a long-drawn on and there should not be communication fatigue either with excessive communication.
g. It is important that the content of every single communication is:
i. Facts based, totally avoiding gossip, conjecture and hearsay.
ii. Transparent, conveying what the management knows, and not smart-guessing about what it does not know.
iii. Empathetic, as your employees are deeply worried about their own survival and their future. They want reassurance that if they fall victim to the infection they will be cared for, and in the worst case if they expire from the infection, the company will support their family to some extent.
iv. Thoughtful, giving updates about what all is being done by the company, and avoiding an overconfident or unnecessarily upbeat tone as if the crisis is not a big issue at all.
v. A source of guidance and mentoring. It should be motivating and inspiring, encouraging employees to remain positive and find the inner strength to adapt to the changed situation.
vi. The communication or posts may include periodic expert advice, reminders to the employees to ensure they are taking all actions required to protect themselves, their families and also society at large, urging them not to panic or spread rumours, and on a broader note, giving suggestions how to avoid boredom and mental fatigue under lockdown conditions.
For communicating with external audiences / stakeholders, many of the recommendations stated for internal communications will apply.
The primary purpose of external communication is to share with external stakeholders what the company’s response is to the crisis; what policies and protocols it has put in place to protect its employees, to ensure business operations continuity (even if at reduced scale), to support its suppliers and other business partners, and not least, to contribute meaningfully to the national effort to mitigate the fallout of the crisis, especially for the less-privileged in society. This broader messaging targeting all stakeholders can be communicated via the company’s website and its social media platforms. Additionally it can be disseminated via the mass media.
CRISIS WITHIN A CRISIS:
While the COVID-19 crisis is impacting all indiscriminately one way or another, there is every likelihood that a company may suddenly face a crisis of its own. For example an outbreak of the infection amongst employees that quickly spreads, or a random accident that threatens life or property and so on.
Even as the company’s crisis team hastens to handle this internal crisis, the news of it can quite easily leak out to the media and the social media, and spread rapidly across the public at large. Obviously this will pose a great threat to the company’s operations and its reputation, and may even instigate a demand for information and explanation from official sources.
It is therefore highly recommended that if a company has a retainer PR agency on board, it must immediately take the agency into the loop, as the greatest support the agency can give in these times of other reduced PR activity is for crisis management. As in any crisis, the speed of response will be essential to minimize the negative fallout.