Article with tips to help businesses communicate
Using A Crisis Communications Plan To Respond
To Coronavirus Issues
⌛ By Kaylin R. Staten ⌛
The world has found itself in the midst of a pandemic.
COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus, is a new severe acute respiratory syndrome that spreads from person to person. Known symptoms are fever, cough, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face. It may be spread when someone coughs or sneezes, and it’s highly contagious.
Older adults and individuals with serious chronic medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes, lung disease) are the most susceptible.
As of press time, the NBA, NCAAs and other sports organizations have suspended all games this season. President Trump and the federal government have halted all travel from most European countries to the United States for 30 days. In local stores and online, you’re hard pressed to find any disinfectant cleaners or hand sanitizers. We’re already seeing the economic impact of the coronavirus, from points slipping on the Stock Market to local small businesses losing customers because people are quarantining themselves.
Even Tom Hanks isn’t immune.
As a small business owner, I have clients from several sectors, and some will be more heavily impacted from coronavirus ramifications than others. As a public relations practitioner to my core, I want to contribute to accurate information sharing and prevention of hysteria (as much as humanly possible) as this pandemic continues to spread throughout the nation and world.
No matter where you fit into the grand scheme of things, it pays dividends to be prepared for any emergency your company, organization, or clients may face. If you don’t have a crisis communications plan in place, now is the time to craft one and begin to implement it. (Don’t fret if you don’t have one — most small business owners are so busy running their businesses that planning aspects often get pushed to the back burner.)
What does your crisis communications plan need to include?
START WITH THE RISK ASSESSMENT
Identify what can go wrong and become highly visible. Is this scenario immediate, emerging, or sustained? Assign priorities based on which vulnerabilities are the most urgent and proceed from there.
DEVELOP SERIES OF SCENARIOS, FROM MILD TO SEVERE
Based on your risk assessment, begin to craft potential scenarios. Which ones are the worst-case scenarios? How realistic is the chance of this happening? Who will be affected by this internally and externally? How will it affect normal operations?
Depending on the type of crisis, you could have to operate normal business hours and procedures as normal. Assign specific roles to members of your business or organization. Typical roles include: media spokesperson/first in charge, second in charge, media and environmental monitoring (digital, traditional), first response team, media relations manager, and other communications roles. In the event you retain your normal work day, you’ll want to have employees who are not affected by the crisis communications plan and can continue their daily duties. If you’re a one-person shop, then you’ll find yourself in all of these roles. Prepare for that as well when you complete your risk assessment and subsequent scenarios and planning.
Based on your scenarios, target audiences, and overall mission, begin to create key messages that can be shared in multiple platforms. Examples include press releases, talking points, spokesperson key points, social-media messages, etc. It’s HIGHLY recommended to have working drafts for each situation to ensure that you are responding promptly to the crisis at hand. How you choose to respond in the first hour of crisis often determines the trajectory of the entire process. You want to be proactive and aim to contain and counteract an issue — not just be reactive.
FIGURE OUT LOGISTICS
Where will you have a press conference, if needed? Does it have enough room for media representatives and other target publics? It is easily accessible, and does it have outlets and technology needed? Who will speak at the podium, and will you take questions? This is where planning ahead will help you make fast decisions that will positively counteract the crisis. Have current contact information for everyone within your organization, as well as external target audiences. That will help you communicate quickly and efficiently when you have to manage a crisis. Pull together all relevant documents, including policies and procedures, plans, templates, and more.
Best Practices for Crisis Communications
Communicate often and craft messages to all of your stakeholders.
If you’re a solopreneur, be sure to contact each of your clients if your business hours and operations change. If you have subcontractors or employees, review your policies and procedures or create some tailored to this situation. Some small businesses may have overseas clients and need to send their goods through the mail or UPS/Fedex. Communicate about your commitment to your customers and that you will try your best to get their items to them, despite the constraints. You may even have to halt this part of your business, depending on future federal and state government decisions. Over-communication isn’t a bother during times of crises. The more open, honest, and informative you are, the better you will serve your target publics.
Make important decisions beforehand.
If you’re part of a larger organization, either as a staff or board member or subcontractor, be ahead of the curve. Take about key personnel decisions that will impact your organization if you have to close due to the coronavirus. Call for a special-session meeting with your decision-makers. The important thing is to keep your employees, clients, yourself, and the community at large safe. The CDC recommends that employers use the following strategies right now:
Encourage sick employees to stay home.
Relax your sick-day policies in accordance with your local organizations’ decisions, i.e. health departments and city and state governments.
Ensure that you’re communicating about safe handwashing on a regular basis. Put up signage in common areas as reminders.
Provide tissues, no-touch disposal receptacles
Separate sick employees with acute respiratory illness symptoms from your other employees, and send sick employees home ASAP.
Routinely clean all shared surfaces, such as doorknobs, countertops, phones, computers and other common areas.
Don’t shake hands with anyone!
Read the full list here.
Host as many meetings as you can either by phone or video.
I plan to use a mixture of FaceTime and Zoom for many of my client and board meetings. The key is to still provide a sense of human interaction without the spread of germs. Events left and right are being canceled, so only go out in public when you have to, and stay away from large gatherings of people.
Have your media messages prepared.
Depending on any business closures or coronavirus cases in your own organization, have a media announcement already crafted. It can be used in a press release format and tailored to your website, social media accounts, and other mass communications.
Have a page or section on your website prepared with your coronavirus information or a placeholder so you will be prepared in case it’s needed.
You can do this yourself or work with your website person or team. You can make the page live or add it as an announcement or pop-up message in the event that the crisis communications plan needs to be carried out. Each client’s needs will be different, but be prepared for their specific plan of action.
If you are one of my local (or not-local) clients, here are some resources that will keep you up to date on the latest happenings from viable sources:
Kaylin R. Staten, APR, is an award-winning public relations practitioner and writer based in Huntington, WV with nearly 16 years of professional communications experience. As CEO and founder of Hourglass Media, she uses her compassionate spirit and expertise to delve into the heart of clients’ stories. She is a recovering perfectionist, mental health advocate, wife, expectant baby + cat mom and Leia Organa aficionado. Connect with Kaylin on LinkedIn.