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COVID-19: A Guide for Communicating through an Unprecedented Crisis

By Maureen Wolff, Chief Executive Officer

Crisis ImageThe fast-moving COVID-19 outbreak is presenting many unique challenges for companies around the globe as they determine how to best manage the business impact, protect their employees at large, and communicate an immense amount of information and change effectively with their employees, shareholders, customers, the media and more.

The following are 8 tips for business practices and communications with core stakeholders as you formulate policies in the wake of COVID-19. 

Tip 1: Think proactively.

While your business or the regions in which you operate may not be significantly impacted by COVID-19 today, there’s a likelihood they will be. Acknowledging this potential will help you begin to take actions and formulate a plan to control the narrative as best as possible.

Tip 2: Get your policies in place. 

Determine what changes, if any, need to be made to corporate policies in light of the heightened risks presented by COVID-19. Over the past week, a raft of companies including Twitter, Gap, Ford and Indeed have announced travel restrictions, event cancellations, office closures and temporary work from home policies.

As an article that ran in the NY Times last week said, “No one has a playbook for this,” and there are many things to consider, including:

  • Will you put travel restrictions in place or encourage work from home?
  • Will you cancel or postpone upcoming customer, investor or partner events?
  • Will these be global policy changes or country by country?
  • What management training is needed to support these new policies?
  • How will you communicate changes and updates real time?

Tip 3: Be clear, consistent and calm with your communications.

As with any time of uncertainty and crisis management, it’s important to have a well-defined communication plan to ensure you are aligned across the organization.

Some tips to keep in mind as you think through your approach to communications:

  • Consider ALL stakeholder groups, including employees, customers, suppliers, vendors, investors and the media.
  • Hope for the best but plan for the worst. While every employer’s hope is that no employee contracts COVID-19, it’s important to define the process for employees to notify the company if they’re sick, and for the company to communicate with other employees regarding their affected co-workers.
  • Make sure executives and leadership across the organization are aligned on messaging.
  • Be clear on your guiding principles. For example, is employee and customer safety and/or business continuity at the heart of the decisions being made?
  • Take the time to consider the layers of communications that are needed for each policy change and business update and tightly coordinate the delivery of these messages.
  • Arm your leadership team and management with the communications tools that allow them to proactively and/or reactively engage with employees, customers, suppliers, investors, media and other key stakeholders. This may include “holding statements” and FAQs for each key stakeholder group that are likely to reach out seeking clarity.
  • Help employees understand where to find real-time updates and what tools are available to support communication with their customers, partners and suppliers.
  • Have a regular cadence to your communications.

Tip 4: Carefully think through if and how you proactively communicate business updates.

One of the most frequent questions we are fielding is how and what to say in the communication of potential business impact (or lack of expected impact) from COVID-19 and the responsive steps the company is taking. This is a complex question with many considerations.

  • If you have a material update to guidance, then you should follow disclosure best practices and issue a press release. In this release, in addition to providing revisions to your guidance, consider including what steps your company has taken to protect your employees and strive for business continuity and reinforce long-term business fundamentals.
  • If you do not have a material update but are feeling pressure to control the narrative and mitigate perceived risk, then issuing a press release or other communication may be appropriate. But doing so can be tricky. Does it set a precedent that you will be held to when another major external event occurs? Are you prepared to continually update the market if the impact of the virus expands? Will a business update benefit or hurt your stock price?

Tip 5:  When it comes to messaging, leverage communications best practices to provide transparency where possible.

Whether you choose to communicate proactively or reactively, strike a balance with your messaging and apply the following best practices: 

  • Acknowledge what you know, including what near-term impact COVID-19 could have on your business.
  • Identify the actions you are taking to address the COVID-19 situation.
  • Reinforce the positive long-term fundamentals of your business.
  • Share a range of possible outcomes, acknowledging those areas where you have limited visibility.
  • Resist the urge to define the bottom or minimize the potential impact. No person or company has a crystal ball that can accurately predict how this will play out, and you want to try to avoid being forced to dial back statements you make about limited exposure.

Tip 6: Get creative and advance your role as an industry thought leader.

This is an unprecedented time that calls for creative thinking on how to connect and communicate with all of your stakeholders. 

  • How can you be better leveraging social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter?
  • How can you use digital platforms to connect with your stakeholders at a time when many companies have banned or limited travel and in-person meetings?
  • How can your company’s products or services be part of the solution as the world navigates through the COVID-19 crisis and what are the best ways to call attention to that?

As one example, we are, in some cases, encouraging clients to supplement a traditional press release with a letter from the CEO that puts the COVID-19 business update in a controlled context where you also can reinforce your people-centric approach to business or ESG-related messaging. This letter can be posted to your website, leveraged across your social media platforms, distributed to media contacts and shared internally.

Tip 7: If you have to cancel planned meetings or events, pivot to digital formats to avoid going silent.

We subscribe to the belief that, at moments of uncertainty, communications matter more than ever.  For companies that opt to cancel meetings and events with investors, customers and/or employees, consider whether there is an opportunity to shift to digital platforms. For example,

  • Rather than cancel your investor day or customer event, can you move to a video webcasting format?
  • If you cancel a non-deal roadshow, or an investor conference you were planning to attend is cancelled, can you use video conferencing to host virtual one-on-ones?

Tip 8: Stay on top of industry and peer updates in real time to inform business decisions and communications strategies.

There is an incredible amount of news flow to keep up on these days – from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization updates to companies announcing event cancellations, travel restrictions and work from home policies. Having a system or resources in place to keep your leadership team informed of major news and updates can be very helpful. 

Companies need to be thoughtful and strategic in how they navigate this unprecedented communications landscape with all of their key stakeholders. Your employees, investors, customers and partners will appreciate and remember your company’s transparency, consistency and the humanity by which you approach this situation.  If you need help navigating this complex time, Sharon Merrill is here to help. We have been advising clients on investor relations and crisis communications for decades. Please reach out to set up a strategy call with our senior level team to address your questions and discuss ways that Sharon Merrill can support your strategy and communications in response to COVID-19.

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