Many well established companies have prepared playbooks, kept in place to deal with external and internal crisis scenarios. Emergency preparedness notwithstanding, the impact of the Coronavirus has upset the business plans for many large and small organisations the world over. As communicators play a key role in influencing opinions and driving change, they have perhaps the most critical responsibility in crafting a company’s response to a global pandemic challenge like the current Coronavirus crisis. Here are some of my thoughts on how communication teams can take steps to help their company combat this challenge.
Proactively establish a two way communication programme with all stakeholders – Companies have deferred or canceled important events like company meetings, dealer conferences, employee get-togethers, customer meets, and also restricted travel. This would definitely create uncertainty about the company and its business dealings. The best way to counteract this uncertainty would be a regularly circulated update to all the stakeholders about the measures that the company is taking to help facilitate smooth running of the business. The overriding idea is to prevent panic and knee jerk reactions from all concerned.
Check, check, check – All company communications for accuracy, honesty, consistency and transparency. During times of crisis, any mistake in communications is instantly amplified. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to control. Therefore, it is extremely important that no misleading or inaccurate information is disseminated. Using information only from tested, reputed and verifiable sources is of paramount importance.
Lead with the leaders – The voice of the leaders of the company has to be seen and heard in order to reassure customers, suppliers, employees and all other stakeholders. The company leadership has to show that they are taking cognizance of the issue and challenges being faced, and that steps are being taken to address them.
Communicate across all platforms – Earlier, stakeholders would have to rely on traditional channels of communication – email, company newsletter, website. However, now it is a fact that audiences are seeking information from several channels – Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media platforms as well. Use these channels to proactively post information and also consider live streaming as a way to interact with multiple groups of stakeholders. Also consider building company communities / groups on social media platforms and keep communication flowing by actively responding to messages and queries. If managed well, these groups can even help bring the company community closer together.
Here are some examples of how I managed crisis situations using communications during some of my earlier assignments. In the early 90s, I used to work in a well known FMCG company and there was an outbreak of plague in Surat.
My sales territory was western Maharashtra which included towns like Nasik and Dhulia. These towns were close to Surat and during my visit I noticed that there was continuous rumor mongering regarding plague being spread to these cities. I would not only take extra precautions but as a leader, I had to give reassurance of product supply to shopkeepers. My repeated and regular meetings and contacts with them gave them immense reassurance and helped them remain motivated during the entire period. Constant proactive interaction with the stakeholders of any business ecosystem goes a long way towards alleviating the stress and worry that the stakeholders are facing.
Similarly, in one of the cases where insurgency and security threats became an issue somewhere in Assam, and there was constant demand for ‘protection money’ from insurgents, we had to ensure smooth evacuation of 176 associates and family members from the North East. We not only evacuated our associates and their families but also told the story of their ordeal, after we had ensured that no further harm could be done to any of the associates. We created a compelling story, on how the company had to rush its employees within 24 hours of the threat. We crafted short but effective key messages that conveyed the urgency of the situation. The communication which resulted was so powerful to the external world that the government took note of it and set up a special task force.
The learnings from these two examples underscore the points that I have made in the paragraphs earlier. While many situations may be unique and require customised approaches, the key points shared above can certainly provide a strong framework for shaping an effective communications strategy during uncertain times.
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