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TODD SMITH — Transparency, preparation key for Coronavirus pandemic communications

TODD SMITH

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our world – and in the world of clear communications!

Officials and leaders around the globe are warning people of the potential ramifications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) by the day and hour. Supply-chain management, special events, retail and hospitality businesses are all vulnerable to disruptions caused by this far-reaching public health concern, according to the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Strategies & Tactics publication.

Leaders from industry, government officials and other important communicators face the difficult challenge of deciding how and when to alter their normal courses of business over potential shortages of supplies, staff reductions, production delays, etc. They also must decide how to address those changes with employees, clients and customers.

The global coronavirus outbreak has the world once again focused on crisis management plans – and how to manage internal and external communications strategies.

What message is communicated to employees, customers and other stakeholders to maintain their confidence in our brands? Unfortunately, answers to these questions are not always clear. But as information about the coronavirus changes by the minute, our responses must be timely, accurate and unique to our organizations.

Here are a few points from PRSA to keep in mind:

Prepare to answer questionsas this public health issue dominates news cycles and people’s conversations, corporate leaders must be realistic about how the global COVID-19 crisis will affect their businesses at some point, even if no one within their organizations contracts the virus. Employees, clients, suppliers and competitors will be asking questions, and we should be prepared to address them.

You can make more accurate statements by arming yourselves with information from reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionthe National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

Business leaders should also check with suppliers to estimate potential delays in parts or products; calculate the costs of labor shortages or resources required for remote work; and consult with legal teams about potential liabilities.

As this insight is gleaned, it’s critical to formulate how to communicate our messages. Among the factors to consider are how to use our owned-media platforms and internal communications channels, and whether they will be sufficient to communicate well or if they will need to be augmented by additional resources. As communicators, we need to plan ahead in thinking about the tools we will employ to reassure internal and external audiences that business is continuing as usual.

Be forthrightSeek the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus. A glance at Twitter’s trending topics shows the public’s rabid hunger for details about the spiraling outbreak(and a few baseless theories). In crisis communications, PR practitioners encourage clients to publicly acknowledge the situation at hand and to provide succinct, accurate – and transparent – information. It’s important to offer the same counsel, and encouragement to organizations and businesses in regard to the coronavirus.

Once scenarios are identified (an employee contracts the virus, others decide to self-quarantine, consumers have doubts due to misinformation, etc.), you must prepare teams to address the anticipated questions and concerns. That means thinking through and planning to proactively address each scenario and how we will engage our relevant partners. In doing so, we must be wary of rumors or assumptions. As news cycles evolve by the minute, there are many opportunities for inaccuracies and misunderstandings.

Among the points that could be communicated are how the organization is monitoring the situation; the steps it is taking to keep customers, clients, employees and stakeholders safe; and that the organization is ready to carry out strategic plans at a moment’s notice.

During times of crisis, communication must be consistent. To remain on message and accurate — and keep the same tone across the organization — only designated spokespeople should communicate to external sources.

Keep the frontline informed in an evolving crisis, such as the coronavirus, frontline employees might be as concerned as the customers. Seek to reassure them that their safety is the top priority, you are monitoring the situation and adhering to all guidance provided by local officials.

It’s important to notify employees and stakeholders of any policy updates that might occur in response to crisis updates and contingency plans, and to create spaces where officials can address their concerns. When changes to daily operations become necessary, an informed team will more confidently deliver the messages that audiences need to hear. Communications pros should also provide clear talking points and messages that can easily be delivered. Above all, they must encourage empathy toward key stakeholders. 

The coronavirus outbreak is another reminder of why it’s important to prepare our businesses by always updating our crisis-communications plans.

Media is balancing remote work while covering Coronavirus

Media outlets across the world are balancing working from home while covering the spiraling coronavirus pandemic.

The Washington Post is encouraging its staff to work at home and the Los Angeles Times is restricting air travel, two illustrations of how news organizations compelled to cover the coronavirus outbreak are balancing the need to keep employees safe, according to the Associated Press.

Both of those directives went out in memos last week.

Washington Post Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan said the news outlet was encouraging, but not mandating, telecommuting for newsroom personnel if their jobs or needs for equipment permitted it. The policy is in place at least through the end of the month while The Post operates at full scale through the crisis.

For most, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

The Los Angeles Times said it was suspending air travel for staff members except in cases where it is “absolutely” required for the job, according to the AP.

The New York Times told its employees that if they want to work remotely, they can do so.

Remote working is not always an option. NBC News did not mention telecommuting in a coronavirus memo, according to the AP, and the network said it was stepping up cleaning of its facilities and making more sanitizers available.

Bloomberg News is requiring its employees in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Italy to work from home, and recommending that its workers in Seattle, Washington, do the same. Other employees who want to telecommute must make arrangements with their supervisors, a spokesperson said.

The AP said it expects its employees to come to work but is dealing with individual concerns on a case-by-case basis. And, AP journalists are not expected to go to hospitals or the homes of people infected by coronavirus.

» TODD SMITH is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Deane | Smith, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm – based in Nashville, Tenn. – is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, follow him @spinsurgeon and like the ageny on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/deanesmithpartners, and join us on LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/company/deane-smith-&-partners.

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