Crisis Communications During and After a Pandemic

26 Mar, 2020

Crisis Communications During and After a Pandemic

March 26, 2020

By John Brandt

The COVID-19 pandemic is upending communities, organizations and governments around the world. With no end in sight, crisis communications will be how firms are sharing information with stakeholders for the foreseeable future.

In addition to the members only resources we have on the topic available on Council Connect, here are three things to consider as the world navigates this pandemic and what to expect afterwards.

Follow the 3 T’s of Communications

Societies, companies and individuals seek stability and certainty. Crisis communications is defined by rapidly changing conditions and uncertainty. Making sure that stakeholders understand the steps your organization is taking to advance its goals in the midst of a crisis, as well as keeping people safe, is critical.

Fortunately the fundamentals of crisis communications still apply in the most pressing times.

To lower the hurdles caused by remote work and large-scale social distancing, organizations need to embrace the “Three Ts” of crisis communications and develop messages that are Targeted, Timely, and Transparent.

  • Targeted: While most of your stakeholders will need to know the broad plan to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, very few people need to know everything. To avoid inbox fatigue, target your communications to employees, partners, and customers to convey only what people need to know about your current response and operating procedures. If you have employees with different needs (for example, customer facing workers versus back office employees) segment those communications as well to reduce confusion regarding who will need to do what and when. Here are some resources for internal audience segmentation.
  • Timely: In a situation where facts come in rapidly, it’s essential to “be the reporter” and bring breaking news to your audiences. A new COVID-19 special edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer found that employer communications are a highly trusted source of information, with 63 percent of respondents saying that they only need to hear a message from their company once or twice before they believe it, with 13 percent believing it to be automatically true. Individuals surveyed also said that they trust their employer (62 percent) to respond effectively and responsibly to the COVID-19 outbreak more than the government (55 percent) or NGOs (53 percent). In addition to the media, several of our member companies have COVID-19 resources
  • Transparent: Stakeholders are turning to you for valuable information. It’s imperative that you’re upfront about how you received the data and why you’re sharing it. According to the above study, a majority of employees expect their organization to do the right thing. However, trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so organizations should be as clear as possible about how they received their information, and the ways in which they’re using it to keep their stakeholders as safe as possible. For more information on transparency in public affairs, check out the Public Affairs Council white paper on the issue.

In addition to these three facets of communications, it’s also important to be realistic about the threat COVID-19 poses.

Contingency Plans for Illness

As disease experts learn more about this new virus, they are finding that its death rate is lower than originally forecasted. Current research has found that the fatality rate for those experiencing symptoms is about 1.4 percent, well above the seasonal flu but lower than original estimates. However, the effects of the disease fall along a broad spectrum, from asymptomatic carriers to those who will need intense and lengthy medical interventions to survive.

Accordingly, organizations must take steps to ensure that the vital communications processes above are carried out in the event that a member of the communications team falls ill and needs to focus entirely on their recovery. Relevant staffers should have all of their communications issues and channels outlined in a tracking document with multiple backups for each to account for possible absences. Additionally, communications teams should rank those issues in order of importance and pause the lower ranking items if employees become too stretched. Those issues can be reactivated as employees come back online. Here’s an example of a business continuity plan for public radio, which could be adapted to addressing communications priorities and roles as well.

Transformation After the Crisis

Whenever and however the COVID-19 pandemic ends, the effects of where and how work happens will be forever altered.

As more of our office infrastructure moves into the cloud, there will be desire from employees to increase their telework opportunities. Team members might also ask for fewer in person or more online meetings.

Organizations should conduct an audit of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic to answer the following questions: Which existing procedures worked well during the incident? Which didn’t? Which ad hoc solutions worked well and can be adapted for standard operations, and which are best left in the past?

Firms that take the time to do a thorough audit of the strengths and weaknesses of their response will be better positioned for the next disaster. A stronger remote work structure could also help companies attract talent as the job market recovers.

How is your organization responding to COVID-19? We welcome your perspectives on how this is impacting your work and how you’re adapting to our current reality. Send us an email, start a message in Council Connect, or contact us on social media.