Communicating about COVID-19: Deciding What to Say, When to Say It, and How
By Andrea Lekushoff, President, Broad Reach Communications
In a very short time, the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the daily lives of millions around the world. It’s a very stressful time for everyone, not least because of questions about the economy, job security, and working conditions. Leaders of Canadian businesses large and small are challenged to communicate through the crisis, balancing the need to provide accurate information with the need to reassure people and contain panic.
However, it’s an even greater challenge for food and beverage companies because many of their employees are busy maintaining the country’s food supply and are not able to work from home or stay away from others. Add that to the worry about how the industry will function when the borders are closed to the annual influx of migrant workers that our farms depend on, and there is significant added stress on everyone in the industry.
Keeping employees, customers, and stakeholders up to date with reliable information is a top priority, and most leaders are doing a great job, particularly given how little time they’ve had to develop their approach. As the weeks stretch out before us and the world works together to try to contain this pandemic, businesses will continue to play an important role in communication.
As your strategy evolves, here are some important approaches Broad Reach has been advising clients to keep in mind while communicating during this unprecedented crisis.
- Closely monitor and follow all public health and government protocols: It should go without saying, but your first priority should be to monitor and then follow all publicly issued guidelines and directives. Your stakeholders need to see that you’re taking all necessary measures to protect their health, your health, and that of the broader public. Things are changing quickly and will likely continue to do so for some time. Stay on top of developments and adjust your approach accordingly—even if that means from hour to hour.
- Lead with empathy: Keep in mind that while your company’s wellbeing is a high priority for you, your stakeholders are primarily seeing this crisis from their own individual perspectives. Remember where their priorities lie. They’re worried about themselves, their families, and their communities, as well as their colleagues and companies. Let empathy be your guide in decision-making and communications. Your stakeholders want to know they can trust you, that you understand the stress they’re under, and that you have their backs.
- Share daily, up-to-date information, and be upfront about what you don’t know: You play an important role in helping your employees, customers, and other stakeholders stay informed; don’t assume that they all know what you know. Stay on top of the situation and communicate daily about what’s happening, being sure to first validate any information that you do share. However, if you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to say so. Nobody’s expecting business leaders to be experts in viruses or pandemics. Your job is to know what your organization is doing about it, so share what you know and provide links to reliable external information sources.
- Bring a personal touch wherever possible: I advise my clients to put a personal face on their communications whenever possible. During a pandemic, that can be done through video. You don’t need to have fancy equipment—today’s smartphones are great for recording video messages. Don’t underestimate the power of tone of voice in these unusual times. A message directly from you, in your voice with a reassuring tone, can have a much bigger impact than a heavily edited written statement.
- Trust existing plans and be willing to learn as you go: It’s entirely possible that your crisis communications plan didn’t take into account a pandemic. But any existing crisis plans are better than none, so don’t discount them; many of your protocols will still be useful. Start there and evolve as you go. And keep in mind that this is a completely new situation for everyone. You won’t always get it right. Give yourself a break, and expect to make mistakes and to learn as you go.
- Stop marketing and start talking: The world is now exclusively focused on COVID-19, and companies that continue with their previously scheduled marketing campaigns and social media posts will seem tone-deaf. Instead of marketing, find ways to help and post about that. Share your expertise, offer suggestions, or maybe even make people laugh, if it’s aligned with your brand—humour is both needed and welcome right now.
- Be transparent about the financial impact: There will undoubtedly be some financial difficulties for companies resulting from this crisis, and employees will be worried about it. Don’t let them stew. Be as honest and open as you can, and share information as soon as you have it. If there are guarantees you can make, then make them, but only if you’re sure. A broken guarantee will hurt your credibility more than admitting uncertainty or being upfront about difficult realities.
- Give back and pay it forward: There’s never been a better time for organizations to help the less fortunate. Look for ways to give back to the communities where you operate and where your employees live. Use your resources and your products to support others, perhaps by donating your products or even cleaning supplies to food banks. Be creative.
This is a very challenging time for every company and its leadership team, both within the food and beverage industry and beyond. None of this is easy, for anyone. But a careful communications approach that is calm, transparent, and empathetic can go a long way to giving your employees and stakeholders some peace of mind.
With more than two decades of experience as a communications strategist and trusted advisor for some of the world’s most respected brands, Andrea is the president of Broad Reach Communications, a PR agency specializing in crisis and reputation management, corporate and consumer PR and social media, public and stakeholder relations and executive profiling. She can be reached at email@example.com