As the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the U.S., the potential for serious disruption to business operations grows along with it. Advance crisis communications planning is critical, yet many companies and organizations have not yet started discussing potential scenarios, stakeholder impacts and required advance communications to help mitigate impact. Waiting until you’re in a crisis to define how you’ll communicate to your internal and external publics will yield poor results because our brains have a difficult time thinking clear and logically when we’re in the heat of the moment.
The time to plan is now.
- Don't Panic – Emotional responses from the top trickles down. Set the tone for how you want the rest of the organization to feel and respond. Communicate clearly to your team that the CDC and state-level health departments are tracking the virus, and that the seasonal flu still has a much higher impact here in the States. Also state that you take any potential risk to the health and safety of your team and public seriously and that the organization is monitoring the situation.
- Start Talking about It – As in any crisis-preparedness process, sometimes the most daunting part is getting the ball rolling. Set an internal meeting with your core emergency response team members, executive leadership, and communications/marketing personnel to start discussing it. Outline likely issues and scenarios and start developing a timeline with milestones for having an actionable crisis communications plan (how we’ll communicate internally/externally about an issue.) This is separate from your emergency response plan, which is what you’ll be doing operationally to prepare and respond to an issue.
- Prioritize – We sometimes view communications with just an eye on external publics, such as customers, investors, suppliers, and media outlets, but we can’t forget about our most critical audience – internal team members. Making sure employees (and volunteers, for non-profits) are well-informed and understand their role in crisis response should always be the first order of business. Consider writing an all-staff email reminding them to stay home if they feel sick, what the office’s hygiene practices are, and what the organization is doing to ensure the health and safety of team members.
- Be Proactive – If your business is considered a gathering place, be as proactive as possible about your communication. Consider posting a statement to your website and social media pages and sending an email to key stakeholders. At the end of the day, what all audiences want to hear is that (a) you've thought about it, (b) you're prepared as best you can for the present, (c) you're actively monitoring the situation, and (d) you'll do and say more if and when the situation evolves.