What will businesses look like as COVID-19 shelter-in-place requirements are lifted and organizations begin restarting their economic engines?
After every major event in American history, life and business were changed forever. The Great Depression brought Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and the FDIC. September 11 brought enhanced domestic security protocols while the Great Recession resulted in heightened governmental oversight regarding financial speculation and corporate governance.
Whatever happens, two things remain certain: the way we conduct business will change and the process to “normal” will be complicated with communications quicksand for business leaders. One misstep can catapult a business, or leader, into the white-hot social media furnace, traditional media maelstrom, or customer anger.
Unlike all of the major events in the past, COVID-19 brings communications challenges for every stakeholder. It will combine the communications needs of employee security from 9/11, job security from the Great Recession, and business transformational change that resulted from the tech boom of the early 2000s. Every stakeholder will have its own needs and patience likely will be in short supply.
Many companies are already feeling the brunt of these items. Some companies are facing backlash from customers and employees for continuing dividends to shareholders, while others receive criticism from investors about withholding future earnings guidance. Other companies are criticized for requiring long hours, their challenges to provide nearly-impossible-to-find masks and other needed personal protective apparel and equipment for essential employees, or for furloughing employees when the business’ revenues drop essentially to zero.
A return to “normal” will mean every business will receive a Pass/Fail scorecard every day, with the only pass equaling perfection. To return to normal, businesses need a comprehensive Communications Plan with large- and small-scale guiding principles.
On the large scale:
- Begin Planning Now. There’s never been another event like this where all business essentially stopped and needs to be restarted. And because this situation is unique, that means existing plans are not as effective or did not contemplate a global pandemic and its impact. If your company has a business interruption communications plan, now is the perfect time to begin adjusting the plan to meet your needs in the current circumstances. If your company does not have an existing BI plan, you should begin drafting immediately because your competitors already have a plan and are working on fine-tuning it.
- Create Resource Toolkit. Customers and employees need to be informed on an on-going current basis. Regardless of how well the operations plan executes, there still will be a lot of questions and unanticipated situations. Stakeholders need to know where to get answers to their questions.
- Be Nimble. Situations will arise during the re-opening. It is vitally important that organizations be nimble enough both to address the situation and communicate effectively with its stakeholders.
On a smaller scale, effective communications will always:
- Be Transparent. Customers and employees need clarity and honesty. They can smell insincerity immediately.
- Don’t Overpromise. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, some organizations boxed themselves in by overpromising and creating sweeping values-based statements that conflict with today’s current state of operations creating a trust problem that needs addressed to rebuild reputation.
- Communicate regularly. Especially during the early days of re-opening, stakeholders will need to have regular updates and it will be important for there to be a clear cadence to the communications. A single “welcome back” won’t work.
When dealing with uncertain situations like COVID-19, clear but authentic communication is critical. Together, these approaches help organizations build and reinforce credibility while fostering trust among constituents.