Businesses and COVID-19: How to Communicate the Coronavirus Crisis
Written by: Orna Daly
Last updated: March 18, 2020
Last week, the World Health Organization updated the classification of COVID-19 from an epidemic to a pandemic, seeing headlines around the world increasingly dominated by the spread of the virus, fatalities, government responses, and potential impacts on economies and societies. Today, John Hopkins University confirmed more than 200,000 cases worldwide, doubling in the past two weeks. Reports of transmission and fatalities have been regularly covered by the media, but interestingly, in reviewing news coverage, very few articles mention the numbers who have fully recovered, which upon writing, stood at over 83,000 patients.
The omission of reports on recovery presents an interesting reality on how media report on pandemics and how we perceive and react to them. In light of the WHO issuing a dedicated directive on how to communicate about COVID-19, we have taken a deeper dive into the role of the media, and how crisis communications planning can help your business.
The role of media in reporting on COVID-19
The media plays a crucial role in the dissemination of accurate information, no matter what the topic, and COVID-19 is no different. What is different, however, is the blanket coverage it has been consistently receiving in national news across almost all of the 120+ affected and many unaffected countries. The conversation is unavoidable, and the public is hungry for news. According to Google Trends, searches for COVID-19 in Canada increased x4 in the past seven days alone, with related spikes in searches for ‘hand sanitizer’, ‘hand washing’ and ‘travel advisory’.
With the world in a vulnerable position as schools, businesses and borders close, the media, as one of the most powerful bodies in guiding public discourse and opinion, has a responsibility to report responsibly on the facts. For weeks, news outlets have been reporting minute-by-minute on the number of cases appearing each day, those who have lost their lives to the virus, as well as people in the public eye being diagnosed. These reports lead the ‘top stories’ on news sites and with constant updates comes an unavoidable swathe of fear and a bubbling sense of panic.
While it’s not the most hopeful time, it’s interesting to see the WHO continuing to lead with a practical, hopeful approach, with statements from the Director-General including “We are not at the mercy of this virus,” and “Research—implemented as policy and practice—can save lives and needs to be integrated into the response from the start.”
Businesses and COVID-19: How crisis PR planning can help your business
In the world of PR, crisis communications is nothing new, but COVID presents an interesting challenge for us as communicators, as well as all of our clients. This is the first time we’re seeing businesses of all sizes concerned with what’s to come, and in light of the uncertainty, we have together some simple tips for our clients, and you:
- Prepare for the unexpected – There are many ways in which coronavirus may impact your business, but the important thing to remember is that everyone is in the same boat. Take the time to examine the business’ operations, looking for productive ways to reassess and update your approaches in order to keep staff healthy, and continue your work.
- Can you implement a work-from-home policy? If not, can you subsidize travel to help people avoid commuting? Can you move client meetings from in-person to video conferencing? Can you postpone any non-essential events, or travel? Can you reduce the capacity of your venue? Answering these questions and ensuring an action plan is written down, updated regularly, and shared with relevant team members will safeguard against undue panic or confusion.
- Stay up to date on the facts – The World Health Organization, national and provincial health bodies issue daily updates on the virus and guidelines on how to manage it. Base your company decisions and communications only on these facts.
- Communicate responsibly – employees look to leaders in times of need. Demonstrate leadership by only communicating the facts and avoiding speculative or inflammatory language. While it may seem premature to communicate with staff before plans are in place, providing updates that management teams are closely considering next steps will help alleviate stress.
- Practice empathy and understanding – encourage solutions-focused thinking, flexibility, and understanding. For those who are very concerned, this will help to foster trust and stronger relationships, both with employees and customers.
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