Corporate crises can take many forms, but a high-profile emerging outbreak such as COVID-19 can be unique in that it generates concern not only for a company’s operations, but also for the health of its people, as well as their loved ones. Leaders should approach these situations thoughtfully and sensitively in terms of their own decision-making – especially in terms of their consideration for their teams in what can be a stressful and emotional time.
Given that crises often have the potential to hurt a brand’s reputation, it is critical that marketers and communicators step up to the plate and support the company’s response and recovery plan. The following five insights reflect some lessons for marketing and communications leaders on helping their organisations successfully navigate not just the operational but also the human side of the evolving COVID-19 outbreak:
- Take your place at the crisis war-room table: Marketing and communications leaders play an invaluable role in a company’s multi-disciplinary crisis-management team. During crisis-response discussions, corporate crisis teams assess the impact of the disruption on business and map out most-likely and worst-case scenarios for which they need to be prepared. Reputation managers are well placed to lead scenario planning initiatives which enable their business leaders to ensure they are prepared for an escalation/de-escalation of the situation, and define policies and measures to put in place to combat the COVID-19 outbreak that also caters to employees’ needs along with other stakeholders.
- Be transparent with employees: In a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak, companies understand all too well that they need to ensure that their employees and their families are safe, secure and taken care of. Apart from ensuring the physical well-being of their staff, companies are responsible for communicating effectively and regularly with them. Especially when “worst-case” scenarios become probable, knowledge is power – but true strength lies in the transparency with which you handle that eventuality. Companies also need to take special care to disseminate credible information and to help employees sift out false information that is frequently circulated during a crisis.
- Trust your prior planning and preparedness: Communications and marketing leaders are often at the forefront of planning, preparing for and drilling business teams to respond to a wide array of crisis scenarios. When the crisis hits it is the time to trust those efforts and execute those plans. All scenarios will present what appear to be “unique circumstances” that may feel like one-offs. They aren’t—at least not to the extent that you would want to abandon the planning and mechanisms you’ve already put in place. Trust the processes you’ve built and trust your teams to execute your plans.
- Be empathetic and sensitive: Business leaders will be forced to make decisions through a crisis – sometimes once every day – without a second thought that may well become highly charged and stressful. Simple questions such as whether to go to work or not, or how to get there can become hugely significant. Communications leaders are uniquely well placed to ensure that the business spokespeople go out of their way to acknowledge this and support their people in the face of these challenges. In a crisis, sensitive and empathetic management will enhance trust in the leadership and secure them long-term commitment of their people by simply being sincere and authentic.
- Understand that every individual will respond differently: Marketers and communicators have the responsibility to recognise that in times of extreme stress, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that every individual reacts differently to situations. Respecting and supporting the differences between employees will facilitate a high-functioning leadership team. This also involves taking the time to appreciate employees who are putting in herculean efforts to minimise the business and people impact of such crisis. Rewarding and recognising employees for their dedication to the company during such hard times will create a long-term bond between the company and its people.
Corporate crises threaten businesses. Emerging outbreaks can threaten not just business outcomes, but also—and more importantly—people. In addition to managing the significant operational impact to the business, taking care of employees, their families and communities must remain at the fore of every business leader’s thoughts and actions.
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