The coronavirus crisis has created a frenzy for business owners near and far. In early March, Alabamians watched the crisis unfold in the largest cities across the United States, and this past week we found it knocking on our doors. Like many cities and states across the country, we followed suit encouraging employees to work from home, self-containing with our families and adhering to closure of our state’s beaches, daycares and in-restaurant dining. Unlike recessions we’ve experienced where the economy was the central focus, COVID-19’s economic impact is compounded by a public health crisis, government crisis, social crisis and information crisis.
When it comes to communicating with employees, customers and suppliers to adapt to the ever-changing environment, business owners and leaders are trying to figure out how to be flexible and best communicate with stakeholders. Uncertainty has created fear for businesses about their ability to maintain jobs for employees, as well as retain customers, sales and contracts.
One thing is certain — now is the time for businesses to shift thinking from growing revenue to growing mind share and market share through communications.
- Don’t sit and wait. Create.
We can’t be a victim to fear-based thinking. Working from facts versus feelings will be crucial for business owners and leaders. And the fact is demand for information and content is greater than ever. Businesses should be communicating with transparency and authenticity to reassure your people — employees, customers and suppliers need to hear from you. Don’t shy away from communicating — be proactive in delivering information. You are the expert in your business and have the opportunity to be a valued resource by sharing your knowledge and expertise.
- Assemble and rely on your communications advisory team.
Bring together a strategic group from a cross-section of your organization to help ensure you have the facts to make informed decisions about your communications. Because information is quickly changing, short, daily meetings with this team will help determine what information needs to be communicated and how often. Decide who within the organization will speak on behalf of the business to stakeholders and the key messages that will be shared. Make sure those spokespersons are trained to speak and equipped with talking points, especially in the case of media interviews. If you are a small business with a small team, enlist fellow business owners and trusted friends as resources for communications and vetting ideas.
- Communicate clearly, frequently and first with employees.
Employees are your most important constituency, and they function as your business’s ambassadors to the community. As their business leader, they need to hear from you. Be transparent about challenges, but also reinforce your commitment to them. Share contingency plans and guidelines to limit business disruption. Inform them on precautionary measures being taken, provide fact-based resources for employees and remind your entire workforce to be sensitive about how they are discussing COVID-19.
And remember, there is really no such thing as internal communications. Internal e-mail newsletters, text messages and even intranet content can be easily forwarded outside the organization. Make sure to remind employees of your business’s social media policies and best practices.
- Communicate and connect with external stakeholders.
Develop key messages for yourself and others on information that affects each external audience — customers, suppliers and vendors — and determine the best channels to deliver those messages whether through personal phone calls, email, social media or the company website.
Develop contingency plans for each of your audiences and business functions. Every business should be ready to communicate promptly with your key stakeholders should your core business functions become disrupted or an outbreak occur at your location. Employees should be notified first, and external stakeholders should be communicated with shortly thereafter. These statements should:
- Convey empathy — put people first, show understanding of the situation and demonstrate compassion and concern
- Describe the facts – detail who, what, where and when for the issue as they relate to your employees, customers and community
- Share action — outline steps your business is taking to protect others, who you are working with to review information and procedures and specific examples of responsive measures to manage the situation
- Provide reassurance — encourage stakeholders that the situation is being contained and reinforce your business’s commitment to others
- Look ahead — show that the business is focused forward and explain where and how you will provide additional updates on the situation
- Engage, educate and enlighten.
Because the world is yearning for information and connectivity, opportunities will emerge for businesses to educate others. Serve as a resource by finding creative ways to connect with employees and customers. Think about what resources you have to offer that can benefit others.
For events that you may have cancelled, how can you leverage technology to entertain those same customers while at home? For tourist attractions and retail stores, how can you take your business to them virtually? For service businesses, what free resources can you offer now to help others navigate this crisis?
Finally, find ways for your business to engage with the communities where you live and work. Use your resources and your voice to support other businesses — share curbside pickup services at retailers or to-go dining options at restaurants or non-profit organizations providing critical support services for your community.
Scale up your business communications right now and you will not only provide connection with your valued stakeholders and community, but also build brand awareness to gain mind and market share when the crisis is over. What people will remember afterward is how your business made them feel during these uncertain times.
Jennifer Jenkins, APR is founder and president of JJPR Agency, a public relations and marketing agency in Daphne. JJPR helps businesses tell their stories and grow their bottom line through strategic integrated communications including community engagement, media relations, social media, traditional and digital advertising, email marketing branding and websites.