The erratic nature of COVID-19 has challenged every aspect of the way we live and work in the modern world. Emergency services are battling to keep people well, key workers are under pressure to provide access to essential services at speed and businesses are being pushed to their limits.
Times are tough for everyone. People are worried about their own health, the wellbeing of their family and friends, and the impact this pandemic will have on their livelihoods.
In this environment, senior leaders across all businesses are focusing on contingency planning. Effective and responsible communication is equally as important and there are some key principles that should be followed.
Leadership & speaking fluent human
In time of a crisis, people look to their leaders. Commentators are referring to New Zealand’s PM, Jacinda Ardern, as one of the most effective leaders on the planet. Her messages are clear and consistent while still empathetic. Unusually, Jacinda’s press briefings are delivered from her own home in her loungewear. She sympathises with her audience, addressing how concerning the current climate must be for them while urging them to stay at home. In her most recent video, she prepares her country for what is yet to come as lockdown eases and maps out a clear path. It is no surprise she is being praised on an international level. In comparison, Donald Trump is being ridiculed for his ignorance and circus-like manner and European leaders are being criticised for their lack of consistent messaging.
In a business environment, senior executives need to front their organisations, communicating more frequently and responding to concerns – now is not the time to shy away. Employees, stakeholders and clients will want to understand what is being done to mitigate the impact of this situation and to be given some confidence that every possible measure is being taken to protect their interest. No one can know all the answers in this situation, but a human face providing clear guidance on what we do know – can go a long way.
An honest, transparent and timely response is essential. Due to the fast-moving nature of a crisis, rumours can quickly spread, and information can become muddled. Someone’s mum’s sisters’ boyfriend’s cousin heard something and before long – it’s trending on social media. It is the responsibility of the communications team in question to deliver real-time information which provides enough detail to dispel rumours, but also to not overload information. It needs to address concerns in an appropriate manner at exactly the right time.
How organisations treat their employees during a crisis will undoubtedly form part of its legacy. Get it wrong and you risk damaging the reputation you have worked so hard to build. This means facing difficult discussions about job losses, furlough and pay cuts. Again, strong leadership is important (notably, Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet took a pay cut in solidarity with the rest of New Zealand). It’s time to lead by example. Amazon US was the most recent brand to come under fire. Several employees spoke out against the company and its treatment of staff in its distribution centres. They stated the fulfilment centres were ‘unsafe and unethical’. Incidents like this can be extremely damaging and there is no doubt Amazon will be picking up the pieces of this fallout in years to come.
Employees are likely to be going through personal turmoil, and therefore will look to their employer for support. Be clear, demonstrate leadership and empathy. This means communicating with them regularly and taking some responsibility for their welfare. After all, your employees will be the people helping you pull through this once it is over.
Don’t be tone deaf
Ignoring advice, communicating irresponsibly or simply being blind to a crisis is damaging. An exciting news announcement or fun new product may have to wait. It can appear to be insensitive or boastful – purely because of its timing. Its also worth thinking about pulling scheduled social media content or automated event invites to avoid the awkward follow up emails.
Ignoring advice can also have consequences. We only have to look at JD Wetherspoons’ founder, Tim Martin, to see the outcome. Last month he suggested the public ignore the government and medical advice because there had been ‘hardly any transmission of the virus within pubs’. He also said he wasn’t going to pay staff until furlough money came through. This was met with a sharp backlash, he was forced to do a U-turn and there was a national outcry to boycott his pubs when they reopen. It’s difficult to know how this is going to impact Weatherspoons when business returns to normal, but Tim Martin’s once loyal customer base might think twice.
Moving on from a crisis
Many businesses already have a strategic, well-thought through communications plan in place. For those who don’t, their response to COVID-19 may well make or break them.
I suspect this pandemic will have a lengthy post-mortem in which businesses will start to revisit their contingency plans and communications strategies in order to redefine them and prepare for the worst. The organisations that will come out stronger are the ones who will adapt and lean into the ‘new norm’, learning from this challenge and moving forward after the hardship.