Posted: 26 Mar. 2020 5 min. read

Companies and leaders will be judged on how they respond to the coronavirus crisis

Right now many leaders and communications teams are “zooming in” to deal with the resource-heavy challenge of informing employees and customers about what to do as this crisis develops.

If they have not already, they will have to “zoom out” to manage a different reputational challenge and answer the simple question: “When the coronavirus crisis hit, what did you do?”

Many sectors will not have the capacity to think beyond their own survival but some will and they will be judged on whether they stood up in a time of national need. To help communication leaders think about getting this right, we set out how the crisis might unfold in different waves and four things to consider in your overarching response. 

Spot the different waves as they emerge

There are four potential waves to deal with that are, by their nature, fluid and overlapping: 

Wave one of the Covid-19 crisis was, and still is, a “zoom-in” response. Communicate with employees about what is happening, what they need to do and why.

Wave two becomes a dual focus on employee and customer welfare and well-being. If customers cannot get your goods or services, what alternatives do they have, what advice can you give them?

This presents various choices you will be judged against: if store staff cannot come into work will you pay them; and if drivers of your ride service have no work, will you offer to support them?

Wave three will take a “zoom out” arc. How can our organisation step up as a responsible business and play an enhanced role in mitigating the spread of the virus and the health and economic impacts?

Technology, financial services, and pharmaceutical and medical businesses will have what struggling companies and health systems need most: data, capital, and critical equipment and medicines.

This is a huge opportunity to be grasped if corporate leaders and champions for capitalism wanted a chance in 2020 to demonstrably prove business is worthy of public trust.

Wave three will see painful restructuring for sectors that cannot tolerate the economic shock. Sensitive scenario planning for this eventuality may feel inappropriate in a health emergency, yet setting up a separate project team to prepare for the worst financially makes sense. For example, what can the airline industry learn from the bank’s bail out in 2008?

Wave four, whenever it comes, will be about stimulating an accelerated snap or bounce back in demand for travel, spending and our consumer lifestyles.

That said, the recovery should be approached with an accommodation of how things have changed. Leaders will be wise to use this harsh lesson in how fragile our systems and economies are to reimagine what matters, what resilience really means and explain that to stakeholders in an authentic way.

We see four areas to get right in your overarching communications response as your organisation deals with these rapidly changing phases:

1.   Find an emotional range:

  • Right now employee welfare is the primary driver of decision-making and communications.
  • The operational elements, for example, updates about working, travel and hygiene policy, will soon be equalled or overtaken by emotion led communications challenges.
  • Addressing organisational anxiety, diffusing misinformation and allowing employees to manage household and personal concerns will test the emotional sensitivity of leadership, vocabulary and conventional internal comms platforms.

2.   Frame the effort:

  • Naturally some companies, organisations and individuals will see the crisis as another way of fulfilling their purpose and values.
  • Rather than being a passive recipient of the crisis, they will repurpose what they do to rise to the challenge of helping customers, competitors and the community. “What are we here for?” should be asked at the start and end of every crisis meeting.

3.   Personalise your response:

  • Recognise the little acts of heroism in your business as part of your response communications.   
  • Use the opportunity to highlight good behaviour and exceptional acts of duty taking place in your teams.
  • Striking the balance between truth and optimism that the business will weather the crisis will be tough.

4.   What communications leaders can do

  • Be timely. Simple, speedy, regular communications.
  • Be targeted. Focus where you are most vulnerable in your value chain and can make the most impact in addressing the unfolding consequences.
  • Be precise. In a fast moving situation, precise direction on changing policies and actions will be valued.
  • Be transparent. Don’t chase news but be open about what your business is doing or isn’t doing.
  • Be human. Fear and anxiety in an unprecedented crisis is normal. Organisations that act and speak with humanity will better connect their message to those that matter.
  • Be humanitarian. For those companies and industries that can, this is a seminal opportunity to step up and redirect your resources to where it can most protect people and society. 

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Key contact

Mark Hutcheon

Mark Hutcheon

Director and Lead Author

Mark Hutcheon is a specialist in reputation management and corporate affairs. For over 20 years, he has advised and worked for major brands helping them protect and grow reputation. Mark helps clients understand their reputation through data, put governance and strategy behind it, detect reputation risk and grow reputation to unlock competitive advantage. He helps CEOs and corporate affairs leaders put reputation at the heart of their decision-making and provides support and counsel in times of opportunity and challenge. In leadership roles for both a global technology and leading sports brand he set the communications agenda, protected reputations in times of distress and created strategies that built trust and value in the business. Previously he was a partner in a reputation management consultancy.