Since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in late December, the closely monitored virus has become a public health crisis in China, causing a domino effect around the world.
Officials are focused on providing the facts, as well as preventing and containing the virus, while scientists work tirelessly on a vaccine. The travel industry is experiencing significant disruption as countries close their borders to travelers from China and cruise ships and airplanes with confirmed or suspected cases. Educational institutions with students from China are experiencing disruption, and many businesses, such as Nike, have closed retail locations in the country.
We’re also seeing the cancellation of major events due the health and safety concerns, like the Mobil World Congress (MWC) Barcelona 2020 conference—the largest event of its kind in the world. And, at the recent London Fashion Week, hand sanitizer and face masks were the accessories of choice. Global event organizers are now making real time decisions between cancelling or proceeding with caution.
As COVID-19 spreads, so does the risk of disseminating misinformation. It’s critical that organizations consider how to communicate with audiences and refer directly to authorities on the subject matter to ensure the sharing of accurate information. The value of strong and factual communications cannot be underestimated. An impressive example of calm, credible and substantial communication was seen recently from Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong on the 2019-nCoV situation in his country.
So, what does this mean for communicators?
When it comes to internal audiences, even if you aren’t seeing a direct impact on your organization, coronavirus is likely top of mind with your employees. Internally, organizations should be focused on providing credible information and resources from established authorities or public health organizations. Credible sources include the World Health Organization and the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) for Canadian information.
Also, it is helpful to reduce anxiety by sharing general information with employees about how to reduce the risk or spread of infection, like these recommendations from the CPHA:
- When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with your arm. Dispose of any tissues you have used as soon as possible and wash your hands afterwards.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid visiting people in hospitals or long-term care centres if you are sick.
Also, this is an ideal time to dust off those business continuity plans if you haven’t already done so for 2020. Think about the best and worst-case scenarios and how your organization will manage operations and communicate any associated change. At NATIONAL, we are big believers that these are important considerations before you find yourself in a potential crisis that puts your brand and reputation at risk.
Important points for consideration include:
- Do you have a business continuity plan? When was the last time it was reviewed? Does it consider pandemic or mass illness?
- What is the nature of your business and the risk of exposure to (or spread of) COVID-19?
- Who are your priority audiences, and what are the risks associated with them?
- What issues are your audiences concerned about? What information can you provide?
- What is the most effective channel to reach your audience in times of crisis?
- Are your key messages clear, free of jargon and unconscious bias?
- Is your spokesperson aware of and prepared for potential crises?
- What is your policy or process if you experience an infection (employees, supply chain, customers, etc.)? How would you communicate this?
Remember, the risk of infection remains low in Canada, but this is a rapidly evolving situation. In response to increasing client interest and demand, NATIONAL Public Relations has established a COVID-19 communications team comprised of crisis communications experts across Canada.
Our team is ready to help organizations prepare and think about how to effectively communicate with and reassure audiences, ideally before a crisis hits. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
——— Nancy Dale is a former Vice-President and Practice Lead, Healthcare at NATIONAL Public Relations