The novel coronavirus now dominates global media coverage, prompts political debate, inspires endless memes on social media and has become a daily topic of office chatter. Over the past couple of weeks, the virus crisis has gained increasing attention, in line with the rise in virus cases reported outside of China and the sharp drop felt by Western stock markets. In many countries, public perceptions of the crisis seem to have shifted from the view that it is ‘something that’s happening over there’ to ‘something that could happen here’!
In the business world, we’ve already seen some big global events cancelled, commercial launches postponed and business travel cut back. The mobile industry’s annual gathering MWC Barcelona was cancelled last month and, a few days ago, the world’s biggest travel trade show ITB Berlin was called off (not to mention Google I/O and Facebook’s F8). We’ve also seen event cancellations in the UAE. Data intelligence company PredictHQ estimates that cancellations have already cost the events industry some $500 million.
So, if there isn’t now an element of uncertainty in your business, then you are either the exception to the rule, or you’re simply in denial. Against the backdrop of economic instability, daily coronavirus news coverage and public fears over safety, many businesses are trying to figure out how the global crisis affects them and what, if anything, they can do about it.
As with the response to any big disruption outside of your company’s control, a rather obvious thing that you can do is to focus on your key stakeholders: your employees, your customers and your business partners.
Another rather obvious thing is that communications is key. So, instead of putting off all communications decisions until ‘tomorrow’ when the situation may be clearer, here are six ways that you can take action to make sure your communications doesn’t say all the wrong things to the people that your business cares most about.
1. Avoid creating a vacuum
As Aristotle once said, nature abhors a vacuum. And so does communications. Don’t assume that by not communicating, your last communications are still kept in mind by your stakeholders. A more likely result is that, if you stop communicating, rumour and speculation will step in to fill the gap. For example, in the absence of good communications, customers may assume that your event will be cancelled, or employees may assume that you’re not paying attention to health risks. You should manage the frequency of your communications carefully so as to avoid big gaps.
2. Take health concerns seriously
Regardless of the actual risks to your employees, customers or business partners, everyone is going to feel slightly different about those risks. Dismissing stakeholder concerns about health, safety or business issues as not valid, risks losing their support. Make writing and updating appropriate policies a priority, even if there are very few new measures that you believe need to be taken. By having a policy and communicating appropriately you will, at least, show your stakeholders that you have their best interests at heart.
3. Be alert to rumours and fake news
Unfortunately, we now live in a world of fake news and, these days, rumours can start when one person tells another about a headline that they misread on Facebook. Keep abreast of coronavirus developments via credible news sources and health authorities and be prepared to dispel rumours. You should also be ready to use internal communications to clarify the impact of announcements in the media on your employees (i.e. don’t let them assume that what they read in the media about another company automatically affects your company, if it clearly doesn’t).
4. Review PR plans and have contingencies
Take some time out to review your forward-looking PR plan and upcoming announcements. What is immovable? What announcements are at risk? And can you fill any big gaps with useful communications, so as to avoid ‘radio-silence’? This is also the time to plan for contingencies (eg. what if we have to cancel our annual event?), issues management (eg. how do we avoid appearing absent from a market that we may not visit as often?) and crisis management (eg. how will we manage communications in case of an unexpected event?). Lastly, review key messages with your stakeholders potential concerns in mind, in case you need to change or adjust them in light of those concerns.
5. Look for new opportunities
We can expect the current global crisis to have an effect on consumer perceptions, behaviour and buying. However, those changes may mean that there are opportunities to communicate and engage with your customers differently. In addition, we can expect some businesses to communicate less, leaving more space for yours! It could be well worth taking a fresh look at your customers’ needs and how you communicate with them, in case there are obvious ways that you can communicate, engage and perhaps even provide more value to them in light of ongoing changes.
6. Be open and honest
You may think that it goes without saying that organisations should avoid lying in order to try to protect their businesses. However, in an environment where public sentiment, business rules and government policy are apt to change, what is an honest company statement one week, could sound disingenuous the next and perhaps even look like a bare-faced lie later on, as circumstances change. Don’t let inaction and lack of attention to your communications put your business in that position. Aim for open, honest communication in the context of the environment at the time and review your messages frequently.
In times like these, when the media and marketing environment is changing faster than the norm, reviewing your company communications more often is a wise thing to do, even if such reviews don’t seem to require much change to existing plans. Keeping your communications consistent and making incremental changes to adapt to the new circumstance is likely to serve you much better than making big changes changes later on, when you may be forced to do so in a hurry.