19 March 2020
Just as businesses thought things were starting to get back to normal, with Brexit settled and a Government with a stable working majority in place, along came the Coronavirus.
These are uncertain times, unprecedented in many ways.
People’s health and wellbeing, along with jobs, businesses and the entire economy, are under threat and no-one can say with any certainty how, or indeed when, it will all end.
While much of the media’s reporting of the developing situation has been measured and responsible, some of it hasn’t been helpful, sensationalising the problem, spreading fear and panic and putting pressure on the Government to over-compensate in its response.
The Coronavirus hysteria being whipped up by certain sections of the media has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the business world, it’s a time for calm heads, rational thinking and pulling together.
As a country, we will get though this, as we always do.
However, for businesses, it’s about taking action now to minimise the potential impacts on your company and insulate yourself against some of the risks so you can emerge stronger at the other side.
Communication plays a key part in this.
While I can’t pretend to be a business expert, or talk with any credibility about the steps you’ll need to take to protect your business and your people from the impact of Coronavirus, I can share my expertise about communications and PR, in the hope that it will help.
Whatever your business, industry or niche, the following principles will help you to communicate effectively with your customers, staff and stakeholders to provide reassurance, keep them engaged and develop your relationship with them.
By this, I don’t mean understand who the people you are trying to communicate with are.
It’s more about understanding their expectations and the way they will perceive your communications in a time of crisis. It’s important here that any communications you create are timely, factual, credible and relevant – in other words, respond quickly and stick to the facts.
A couple of other things to bear in mind here, though, are honesty and empathy.
Don’t try to spin things or share misleading information. If there is information you can’t share, just be open about it.
Above all, make sure you come across as caring and understanding. People will forgive a business which makes mistakes or finds itself in situations beyond its control, provided you do something about them. They won’t forgive you for coming across as heartless or uncaring, though.
So, understand what your audiences are looking for in a crisis situation, then give it to them.
The key objective of communicating in a crisis is to provide reassurance to those affected by it.
So, if you’re a retailer, it’s about reassuring your customers that you remain open for business and are doing all you can to help meet their needs. If you’re a manufacturer, it’s about letting people know what your plans are and how you are managing production.
You’ll know what the issues are within your business – the aim of providing reassurance is to communicate this properly to your stakeholders, and to let them know you’re doing all you can to get through this.
As an employer, it’s all about letting your people know what the current situation is, what you are doing to manage it and what might happen in the future.
There’s a fine balance to strike here, because you may have some difficult decisions to make as things progress, so it’s just about being honest with your staff and reassuring them that you are doing all you can to work out the best solutions, and keeping them informed at every step of the way as the picture changes.
The current crisis is a fast-moving feast and with things changing so much daily, it can be hard to take, and maintain, a position.
However, being consistent with your messaging is key. So, state your objectives and intentions, then stick to them.
Things will no doubt crop up to try and blow you off course, but if your customers and your people know what you are trying to achieve, they will join you on the journey, whatever course it may take.
In a crisis, there’s no point whistling in the dark and pretending everything is fine.
It’s important to acknowledge people’s fears and uncertainties, but follow this up with clear information about what you are doing as an organisation to address them.
Again, people understand the situation, so be proactive about showing them you understand their fears, uncertainties and doubts and in talking about how you are responding to them.
As the old saying goes, ‘if you can’t say anything helpful, don’t say anything at all’.
Finger pointing, rushing to judge, rumour-mongering and being quick to react negatively don’t help anybody and serve only to fan the flames.
So, in a crisis, as in life, just try and empathise with what other people are going through and look at things from their perspective.
Seriously, try to be helpful and kind, it's what will get us through this, together.
These are just a few musings on what I belive businesses can do to make the best of their current situation through their communications.
If there’s anything I can do to assist in helping you communicate with your people, your customers and your stakeholders during these uncertain times – whether it’s for ideas, helping you to craft some copy for an email or blog, or just general advice about the best ways to communicate with people – please get in touch, my details are below.
We’re all in this together. Stay safe and well!