It is not enough to say nothing. Businesses have to say what they are doing and strike a balance between reassuring customers and staff of their capacity for ‘business as usual’ while showing what they are doing to meet the challenge of these extraordinary times.
In 1969 the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, a book that shone a light on how humans process bereavement. In the book she discussed, for the first time, the five stages of grief: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance.
In the first few weeks after the novel coronavirus hit China, we were in the first stage: denial.
COVID-19 was something that was happening far away.
Memes did the rounds on social media making jokes about panic-buying toilet rolls.
We have now moved into the second stage: blame and anger.
On Saturday, a Chinese official told a Bloomberg journalist that the US Army is behind the coronavirus.
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood was quick to fire back that China sat on the outbreak for three weeks, and that Wuhan is the home to the Chinese Army’s principal bio-weapons research facility.
Yesterday, in Britain’s most read newspaper Metro (full disclosure: I was Political Editor of Metro for seven years), the headline was ‘Greed of Shoppers’, over an image of empty shelves.
People are looking very closely at the way businesses react as well. A company that has raised the prices of hand sanitisers has become a pariah on social media.
Businesses that appear to be trying to ‘cash in’ on the crisis, or appear tone-deaf, are being called out.
We are a long way from the final stage of grief, but those who plan well for the short term while thinking for the long term will be best-placed to support their customers now, and keep them in the future.
Five things communications professionals can do now to support their organisations:
- Work with the rest of the board on what the business plan is. All businesses need to carry on with business as usual as much as they can, while making sure they are looking after staff and working from home. Communications plans work best when they are aligned to business plans.
- Create an internal plan. As communications professionals, we are not making physical things, and so we are set up to work from home. We are all used to email, conference calling, social media and video conferencing. We can look after our staff and clients by taking advantage of this technology now. Making sure our internal plans are well-written and tight will make for good remote working.
- Relook at all messages. This is a crisis. It is fundamentally important to look at all crisis comms messages and ‘tricky questions sheets’. Work with the CEO on what these look like. Communications professionals need to ask tricky questions of their CEO about what will happen in the event of a global recession.
- Create client plans and offer support. Do you have time that you were spending organising meetings? Can any of these be turned into virtual meetings? Look at where your time was being spent and look to see how it can be reassigned.
- Tell your clients how you are working. Write to your clients to let them know what you are doing. Can you offer them additional support, particularly with their comms to their own customers and staff? Can you train clients in virtual broadcasting for news stations? Can you offer to create virtual roundtable events? Can any other work, such as deep strategic planning, be done while short-term tactical meetings are on hold?
John Higginson is the founder of Higginson Strategy