American business is forever changed by the Coronavirus, in ways too numerous to count. As we navigate together through this unexpected crisis, a risk management communications program needs to meet people where they are and be quickly adaptable to change.
While the advice we offer clients is highly personalized for their business and markets, here is some general guidance we use in developing crisis communications strategies:
- Communications is a 360-degree process; we need messaging that is specific to the concerns of customers/clients, but also to employees, contractors, and vendors. Each has different priorities, but equal importance.
- In times of high emotion, your ability to convey competence and reassurance is just as important as the steps you are taking. Organize your messaging facts first.
- What have you done to prepare? Have you formed a task force, ordered extra product, taken steps to ensure your supply line, acted to get extra supplies for staff? Have you obtained hand sanitizer, enhanced your cleaning routines, or taken other steps in locations customers/clients visit?
- When anxious, people look for tangible actions you have taken, rather than promises. The more specific you can be, the more reassured your constituencies.
- The more nervous people are, the less inclined they are to act when quickly changing events may overrun today’s realities. If you can make their commitments to you more easily reversible, you will lose less business to paralysis. This is why so many travel organizations are changing their cancellation policies.
- It’s more important than ever to have easy access to businesses for questions and requests. Make sure you tell everyone (in all constituencies) how to make contact, and make sure someone is on the other end all the time.
With these communications practices in mind, here are the top ways our clients are acting to protect their businesses in the current environment:
- Pull out the business continuity plan, and make sure it fits this scenario. Do you have explicit cross training and backup of staff with specific roles for each person, in case some are unavailable?
- Do you have backup communications mechanisms in case offices are closed? Now is the time to make sure you have video conferencing accounts and (just as important) mandatory training for all staff.
- Can your teams work from home? If you use a VPN for email, do you have backup IT support in case your in-house or contracted It person/people are ill? Do you have a backup system that can work with no more than any internet connection? Do you have a distributed phone list for staff, contractors, and vendors? Can your customer facing staff contact customers/clients remotely, including CRM access?
- Have you spoken with suppliers (as applicable) about their plans for supply chain continuity? Do they anticipate any shortages or transit issues? These cut to the heart of your own business continuity, not just theirs.
- It’s especially important to make sure that you have receivables continuity. If business declines or receivables slow, do you have backup plans for a cash crunch? Can you access mail to receive and process checks? Do you have a continuity plan for remote deposits, and have you contacted customers (when appropriate) with ACH and wire instructions, along with the thought that now may be a good time to use them? One of our b-to-b clients has created a backup account with a web-based credit card processor so that they can be paid online or by phone via credit card. The processing costs are a lot less than having trouble accessing payment altogether.
Crisis communications planning quickly changes into something larger, because the issues often illuminate issues in overall business interruption planning. People in my business are often the bearers of bad news, and believe me, we like being wrong. But only when we err too far on the side of caution. It’s easier to manage being too cautious than the opposite.