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COVID-19: 7 steps for effective crisis communication

By Melanie Butler, Partner, UK Territory Crisis Leader and Alexa Highfield, Communications Director

As the COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) pandemic spreads around the world, so can misinformation. Amid the noise, it’s up to organisations to provide accurate information. While the full economic impact of the pandemic is still to be felt, supply chains could be disrupted and customers inconvenienced. People are looking for reassurance from sources they trust. And, if you consider the Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that employees now look to organisations as a more trusted source of information than the media and government, the importance of communication is paramount.

Communication strategy during these types of events, however long they may last, can be critical, and the same three basic principles of communication apply: transparency, compassion, and ownership. But the COVID-19 pandemic is a complex event that affects many elements of a business – so what else can organisations do?

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Duty of care comes first

With governments all around the world now advising social distancing, organisations are enabling their people to work from home where possible. However those organisations who employ key workers who cannot work remotely need to ensure they continue to prioritise duty of care to them, their families and colleagues. But there are other, less urgent, duties to consider. If the supply chain is disrupted customers will be affected, but if the impact is restricted to inconvenience, it’s because the organisation is doing all it can to protect its people and the wider public. Integrity matters.

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Know your audience

While the immediate priority should be employees who will be highly impacted employees who may be at risk, a far wider audience will be looking to the organisation for reassurance and leadership. Every interaction should reinforce the values you uphold as a purposeful and empathetic organisation.

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Keep messaging clear and consistent

Effectively tracking risks requires the help of the wider organisational community – the health sector, for example, is facing particular challenges as many employees are on the front-line of helping to fight the pandemic and will need to look after their employees' emotional as well as physical wellbeing. Dedicated hotlines and FAQs can help to target specific groups and encourage the flow of information.

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Focus on perspective

There’s an important balance to be struck between transparency – being open about the potential risks – and managing the fear factor. Without downplaying the risks, help people keep the event in perspective.

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Scan the horizon

These types of events can unfold in unexpected ways, so preparing for a range of scenarios, even the seemingly unlikely, could help prepare the organisation for the future. What’s the worst that could happen? How could the organisation’s reputation be affected? What mitigating action could we take in each scenario?

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Keep communication flowing in both directions

Effectively tracking risks requires the help of the wider organisational community – the education sector, for example, has faced particular challenges as institutions need to know quickly if their students have been to, or have met with visitors from, affected areas. Dedicated hotlines and FAQs can help to target specific groups and encourage the flow of information.

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Look out for unintended consequences

Misinformation around these types of events may raise the risk of discrimination against particular communities This is a time to reinforce messages of inclusion and quickly counter any suggestions of prejudice.

While there is still a long way to go, the business community has reacted quickly and effectively, focusing on getting the basics of crisis communication right. COVID-19 is a daunting test, but by doing the basics well, organisations can set themselves up to best support their employees, customers, and clients now and in the future.

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Melanie Butler

Melanie Butler

Partner, Digital & Forensic Investigations, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7801 216737

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