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Coronavirus: responsible communications

05 March 2020

By Charlie Ansdell

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” Winston Churchill

Over the past few weeks, organisations have dusted down their business continuity and emergency response protocols to deal with the impacts of Coronavirus.

While communications and reputation may not have been the first focus of organisations coming to grips with alternate working arrangements, it remains an intrinsic element of any crisis or business continuity response.

Putting people first

Given the current febrile environment, the Coronavirus outbreak has significant communications implications for a wide variety of stakeholders. An organisation’s people need to be reassured but also educated about alternate working arrangements (and their implications) and steps they can take to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Organisations need to be clear about the steps they are taking to protect their people and to prioritise their health and wellbeing, along with following government or health authority recommendations.

Equally, people need to understand the responsibilities they have to reflect the company’s position through their social media or personal channels; gossip, conjecture and hyperbole can undermine company communications and create panic.

The company in the community

Ultimately, organisations operate within communities and have a responsibility to the wellbeing of those communities. Organisations may be significant local employers and virus cases or office closures can cause panic locally.

Organisations should ensure that all communications are factual, reference the steps the organisation has taken (and their reasonableness) and seek to reassure local and community concerns. Where organisations are taking steps above and beyond those recommended by government or health authorities, they should explain why to allay fears.

Organisations should engage local authorities, MPs and health authorities to ensure they are aware of their actions and communications.

Events and travel

Organisations should consider carefully how they manage communications around events. While many events have already been cancelled, companies have a responsibility at events for the wellbeing of their people.

Attendees will wish to know what steps organisations have made to minimise risks, such as cleaning protocols or advice on interactions; equally, they may want to know their options and whether they can opt out of events if they are concerned. 

Dealing responsibly with suppliers

The outbreak has already had significant implications for global supply chains; while manufacturing has been impacted in areas with factory closures or quarantine, suppliers to industries that may be impacted are likely to be nervous.

It is important that organisations engage with suppliers to allay fears and to ensure they understand the facts (and implications) of any impact.

Transparency with investors

Investors need to understand the potential impact on business performance from the outbreak and the steps companies are taking to manage and mitigate risks. While markets may have a tendency to overact or underact to market news (the famous “Animal Spirits” that John Maynard Keynes referenced), organisations must remain transparent, reasonable and accurate in their communications with investors and business owners.

When stock market volatility is high it can be tempting for organisations to issue strong statements in response; organisations should take care not to downplay risks or overplay potential upsides.

Profiteering in crisis

Intrinsically economic systems respond to supply and demand. Undoubtedly some organisations –for example medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and their distributors – may benefit from the outbreak.

There are already stories of people stockpiling and reselling ‘in-demand’ goods. While this may generate short-term profit, there is a longer-term risk of brand damage from organisations that seek this business approach.

Social media and consumer sentiment can be particularly harsh, and government or regulators may take action against organisations.

While the commercial case may be compelling, organisations should weigh this against potential reputational impact.

At the same time, organisations should ensure that customers and consumers are treated fairly when dealing with rationed or in-demand goods to prevent stockpiling and reselling; in all cases, this approach should be communicated clearly.

Measured and proportionate

In situations where fear and panic can easily be stoked, the tenor of communications is incredibly important. Responsible organisations have an important role in helping to prevent panic and to reassure a broad range of stakeholders. Communications must be closely coordinated and sequenced to ensure consistency and fairness to all stakeholders. Moreover, communications must be measured, considered and proportionate.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash