The Imminent Communications Challenges Coronavirus Will Pose to Your Business 

A few weeks ago, my wife had to take a trip to Tel Aviv to meet with a client. A day before her trip, one of the team members in the meeting mentioned that her flight had an extended layover in Hong Kong and was concerned about coronavirus. After a short Google search, I rushed out of the house to find an N95 mask for her to wear in the meeting (spoiler alert, I didn’t find one). When your wife travels across the globe for her job, it’s already a little nerve-wracking, but knowing that there was this mysterious illness floating around and she was going to be on planes and in meetings with people who potentially had been exposed to the virus led to another level of stress. 

Welcome to the new reality we all face. 

How coronavirus affects your business and what you can start doing now 

Some of the country’s leading companies are making public statements or operational changes to quell the concerns of employees, investors and customers. These include Delta, Apple, lululemon, Hilton and many others 

As these organizations have shown, customers are concerned, so you should take the threat of coronavirus and related communications seriously as well. Take time to think though how it could affect your customers and determine how you would address those issues in your businessSome businesses are more at risk than others and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what you should do, but here are some questions that can help determine the level of planning your organization needs:   

  • Does your brand have operations in, travel to/from or receive supplies from China, South Korea, Italy or other affected countries 
  • Is your business a place where the public comes to shop, eat, or interact with others who may have come into contact with the virus? 
  • Are you taking proper precautions from a health and sanitization standpoint on a daily basis to minimize the spread of germs and should these measures be increased to account for a heightened level of risk? 

In response to these questions, most businesses have or will consider operational changes related to the threat of the virus. Many though do not consider how they will communicate these changes to their stakeholders, whether proactively or in response to a specific situation. All crisis preparation MUST include your communications and marketing teams. They are your connection to the public at large. They should work hand-in-hand with your operations team to determine what communications tools are needed to handle the potential threats (i.e. holding statement, sample social media posts, talking points for executives and customer-facing associates). As our co-founder Glen Jackson says often, “In a crisis, speed of response is essential.” Every communications minute you lose during a crisis is amplified in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of social media.  

Don’t forget about your employees 

It’s easy to default to the impact that the coronavirus has on customers and place all of your focus there, but that would only solve half of the equation. There is no doubt that coronavirus is already having an effect on the lives of your employees. Whether it is causing an extra five minutes of conversation around the coffeepot in the morning, questioning the wisdom of going to an out-of-town conference or wondering if they should liquidate their 401k, the sting of coronavirus is being felt by many inside your workplace. We believe that there are two ways those in the C-suite need to look at coronavirus in the workplace and begin thinking about how they will respond when it impacts them. 

First, what will we do if someone inside the work environment contracts the virus? While the idea may seem far-fetched, many public health professionals are preparing for a possible pandemic, meaning the chances are higher than one might think. However, most prognostications come with an important caveat that the result will be similar to cold or flu, not the dire consequences we have seen in other countries. The chance of a significant outbreak at your business might be low, but that doesn’t prevent widespread fear within your organization if your employees hear the words coronavirus and positive in the same sentence. This creates a communications crisis, not only a health one, for your people. It will be important that executives and managers acknowledge and address their concerns, but do not let it disrupt the entire organization. While you must put appropriate safeguards in place to prevent the actual spread of the virus, you also need to ensure your HR and internal communications teams are prepared to communicate clearly to your team members. Show them – and tell them – that you are willing to take the steps needed to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Every executive says their employees are their most valuable asset, and this is when you demonstrate to them that it is true 

The second way this may affect your team is outside of the four walls of your workplace. Leaders must prepare for this and be flexible. Schools may temporarily close, spouses may need to travel by car and not plane adding to time away from the home, baseball and soccer tournaments may be rescheduled or elderly parents may get sick. Similar to flu epidemics, which have become more common in the U.S., these events throw a wrench in the lives of your team members, and employers need to adjust or risk losing good people. Management may need to consider offering flex work options or telecommuting while this situation passes. Again, proactively communicating these efforts, showing grace and flexibility in the midst of the challenge and giving team members the tools they need to work away from the office will forge a deeper relationship between them and the organization that will last long after the threat passes. 

The new normal of coronavirus

Here at Jackson Spalding, we deal every day with issues that have the potential to cause financial or reputational harm to our clients. When these issues hit their business, we are usually the first (or second, depending on if there’s a legal issue) call. As you can imagine, we have been on the receiving end of a lot of questions the past few weeks from clients about coronavirus.  

The first question we ask in any situation like this is – is it a crisis or a challenge? To answer that question, we must agree on the definition of a crisis. At JS, we define a crisis as “an emergency situation that escalates quickly and poses a threat to the reputation, credibility, operations or even the viability of your organization.” To determine if the issue is truly a crisis, we have a checklist of questions we work through:  

  • Could the matter cause a loss in moral authority within the C suite that will damage the company’s overall credibility internally and externally?
  • Are there multiple stakeholders involved?
  • Does the issue have social media scalability?
  • Does the issue have national news relevance?
  • Does the issue foster emotional repercussions both inside and outside the business? 
  • Is there repetitive failure related to the issue you are facing that leads to consternation and concern? 

Asking these questions around coronavirus and your business may lead you to the conclusion that, at the moment, coronavirus is a challenge to your business, not a crisis. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it. In fact, giving the situation the right amount of attention may be what helps your organization prevent it from escalating to a crisis – and communications plays a key role in that.   

We are months, if not years away from a vaccine for coronavirus. Like the flu, it will be something that businesses are dealing with for years to come. Planning your coronavirus communications is essential to protecting your reputation as it nears our shores. As the world prays for the spread to be halted, your organization needs to prepare as if it is on your doorstep. The great news is that, if the virus never affects your business, your planning will not be wasted. Every business is one misstep away from a full reputational crisis and going through these exercises from time to time will help you prepare for the next situation.   

NOTE: The post above addresses communications concerns related to coronavirus. Please listen to our clients at the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Georgia College of Public Health for expert advice on how you, your family and your business can protect yourself from the virus.