Rethinking corporate communications strategy for COVID-19: a how-to guide for your 2020 playbook

16 Apr 2020
Oliver Pearce

This time it really is different. COVID-19 is unlike any other global issue experienced in the era of modern corporate communications – it affects everybody, everywhere, and at different speeds. We don’t know when the recovery will start, but even when it does it will not be even. This creates significant uncertainty for global businesses and, when faced with something never seen before, it’s not enough to simply reach for the old playbooks.

Yet at the same time, any crisis needs a response plan that all stakeholders can understand and act upon – a common framework to not only get things moving quickly but that can also provide reassurance through familiarity, that warm feeling of routine or process. It’s time to rethink your corporate communications response; here’s a guide to how.

Engage Quickly and with Empathy

How you handle corporate communications can be a decisive factor in how your organization comes though COVID-19 and how quickly you can recover when the situation starts to stablise. Staying quiet in difficult PR situations is never advisable and for better or worse, how your company responds to coronavirus may well have a lasting impact on your organisation.

In fast-moving and uncertain situations, many businesses face questions they may not even have answers to. Therefore, communication in challenging times must be built on four pillars: honesty, empathy, accountability, and consistency. That means telling the truth, understanding your stakeholders, taking responsibility and acting on your words.

From the beginning you must approach the situation with empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of all of your stakeholders by understanding each of their concerns. Even if you’re still trying to understand the extent of the problem, be honest and open to maintain credibility.

Show Leadership and Dispel Misinformation

In such times all of your stakeholders are looking for leadership – from employees to suppliers, they want to hear an authoritative voice. What is going on? What measures are you taking? What action can we take? How long will this last? These are just some of the questions that people are thinking about on a daily basis. By taking charge of your company’s messaging you can provide the reassurance that they are looking for.

As we have already seen, fake news and misinformation spread fast and this is why leadership in communications is needed more than ever. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown are the most difficult feelings that people deal with and nobody knows just how serious COVID-19 will turn out to be for society and business. This can accelerate the negative effects of ‘story bias’, a principle studied in behavioral economics. As Chris Kong, an expert in consumer behavior, observed at the start of the outbreak, “Stories are powerful and can lead to extreme behaviours. Images of a doomsday scenario on mass media and social media have led to a spread of fear, further leading to panic buying of toilet paper and other items.”

Imagine how your suppliers, distributors or investors would react to scaremongering or misinformation. The key is to minimise the scope for speculation. Be open in your communication and make it consistent and regular and avoid panicking people unnecessarily. Accept that there is incomplete information, continuously adjust your communication strategy, decide quickly on messages and communicate clearly. Delays in the flow of information risk creating new issues further down the line.

Five Steps for Swinging into Action

Once you’ve accepted the need to communicate openly and with empathy, it’s time to get on with it. Below we outline five key steps to update your corporate communications strategy to keep your organisation on top of the current situation.

1. Build The Right Team

A crisis like COVID-19 can have an impact on every part of the business, meaning internal cohesion is needed across teams. Bring in people from Legal/Regulatory, Operations and PR/Comms with oversight from Senior Management.

2. Establish the Facts

You can’t show leadership and calm people if you are not in possession of the full facts. Reliable data underpins both crisis planning and response. It’s essential that the crisis plan outlines how information will flow and that everyone has confidence in its authenticity. Data also reinforces a central element of crisis planning — exploring different scenarios and how they could affect the business at various stages.

3. Address ALL of your Stakeholders

You must address all of the organisation’s stakeholders and not focus narrowly on particular stakeholder groups such as investors while neglecting others like suppliers. You must also elevate Employees to the top of the stakeholder list and ensure communications with them are two-way. A well-informed employee can steer brand perception in a positive direction and become a brand hero, while poorly-informed employees can become demotivated, careless or even make costly mistakes.

4. Get the Tone of Communications on Point

Remember we mentioned empathy? Don’t forget it. As many leading Chinese brands understood early on, this is a period to be supportive, not to sell. If you want to promote your CSR initiatives then keep it factual and humble – don’t behave like you are the only company donating masks. When sharing helpful content on social and digital channels be careful not to overstep your role and start offering medical assessments or advice. Your role is to keep your team and customers together. Brands should only reference authorised information from government or health organisations such as the WHO on topics outside your domain.

5. Hit the Most Effective Channels and Don’t Overload

Stakeholder groups can be reached across different channels so it’s important to use the right ones with the right messages. Somebody who bought your product once 6 years ago on a promotion does not need to hear that you are doing your best to keep your employees safe. The format of message delivery should also be tailored according to who is receiving it – a short video works well with consumers but your supplier might prefer a formal, signed letter regarding business updates. And don’t overload the comms channels – nobody wants to hear your updates several times a day by email; if they did, they would follow your Weibo or Twitter account.

Nobody knows when this situation will improve. It will impact across business units and markets at different speeds and to varying degrees of significance. Amidst this uncertainty communications professionals must somehow find a way to sustain engagement internally and externally if the situation persists. By adapting your communications response to this reality and staying focused on developments, you are better placed to succeed.

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