As the number of coronavirus cases in the UK rise, and Government puts in place contingency plans to help safeguard the country, businesses are increasingly facing questions about their own preparedness from their clients, stakeholders and the media.
PLMR sets out its top tips for businesses to help them effectively communicate their work to protect employees, customers and their bottom-line.
You might not have received questions about how you are protecting customers, clients and your business interests yet, but as the number of cases of Covid-19 continue to rise, it’s likely you will receive enquiries sooner rather than later. It’s important you are as prepared as you can be for this eventuality.
Think carefully about what you might be asked and by who. Your answers will vary depending on the sector you operate within, but the themes of the questions will all be similar. People, whether they are your employees, stakeholders or clients and customers, want to know that you have thought about how to keep them safe and your business operational.
Some of the questions we have been asked on behalf of clients recently have included:
- What is your sick-pay policy in case an employee needs to self-quarantine?
- What happens if the company has to shut down?
- Can we work from home if the outbreak gets worse?
- What are your contingency plans in case of revenue loss or market shocks?
- Is your supply chain able to continue accessing critical supplies?
If you don’t have answers to these questions in place already, now is the time to prepare. This includes thinking carefully about your HR policies, flexible working arrangements, supply chain management and how you will communicate these to your employees and customers. If you anticipate operational issues in the event we enter a pandemic situation, prepare template answers to common questions now. If your contingency plans involve moving the working location of colleagues – particularly in multi-site businesses – consider how you’ll communicate this and what commons questions (such as transportation) you might be asked and how you will respond.
Make sure your communications teams know the answers and understand what information is cleared for release. Agree a clear protocol for answering media enquiries and make sure anyone who might answer a phone-call knows what to do and say if the BBC or Daily Mail calls looking for a story!
Remember, people will always be more reassured if you can demonstrate that action has already been taken, rather than by a commitment to take action in the future.
As important as it is to be prepared, it’s also important to remember that we can’t be prepared for everything, all the time. The situation with Covid-19 is still emerging, and nobody is quite sure how events will transpire.
In situations like this, it’s important to be as transparent as possible with your audience groups. If you don’t have the answer to a question, don’t be tempted to make one up, or tell people what you think they want to hear. And don’t make promises you can’t keep.
It’s always better to be upfront and admit that you don’t have an answer, but you are working on it and will keep everyone updated, rather than to bend the truth and be caught out later down the line. This is where real reputation management issues can arise, and it’s always more difficult to mitigate reputational damage when you’ve been found to be telling fibs!
In many reputation management situations, the go-to-advice is often “wait until approached”. Coronavirus, however, is an exception to this rule – especially if you work in a ‘high risk’ sector like health and social care, or education. In these situations, saying nothing only leaves space for people to fill the information gap with their own version of the truth, and that isn’t helpful in a highly charged situation where people are already panicking.
If you have policies in place, then there is no harm in proactively talking to your audience groups to reassure them that you are taking this seriously and to point them in the right direction for advice.
Even a simple letter that tells people that you are keeping updated on the latest Government advice can provide people with the reassurance they need.
Be a reassuring voice
In a world of social media and 24 hour news, it’s easy for people to panic in situations like this, particularly when reports of worse-case scenarios are making the headlines and rumours fly unchecked.
This is why it is important for businesses to be a reassuring voice in any communications they disseminate. In practice, this means keeping up-to-date with the latest advice, and keeping everything as ‘normal’ as it can be while continuing to safeguard your business and employees.
This isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do (although it definitely is) but also because panic can drive consumer and employee behaviour – making it more likely for staff members to stop going to work, or customers to stop buying products – both of which can have a negative impact on your daily operations and hit your bottom line.
We have also found it useful to compare actions taken to safeguard against Covid-19 to normal activity. This helps put things in perspective and provide reassurance. For example, when speaking with health and social care clients, many of the same policies to deal with coronavirus are already in place to deal with the annual winter flu virus. When we point this out to staff and patients and remind them that they already know how to protect themselves from viruses, it helps cut through the panic, and makes them more likely to listen to the advice given.
If in doubt, seek help
As with any communications challenge, if you’re in doubt about how best to communicate the effects of coronavirus to your business to your key audiences, then consider seeking professional support.
PLMR’s Coronavirus Advisory Team is already actively engaged in supporting clients across sectors to prepare for and communicate about coronavirus. Get in touch on 0207 622 9529 or email Nathan.Hollow@PLMR.co.uk or Emma.Divers@PLMR.co.uk.