I’m not an expert in infectious diseases.
But I do have more than 25 years of experience in public relations, nonprofit communications and marketing so I understand how to communicate with diverse audiences in a variety of situations.
Like the infectious disease experts, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has pushed PR and communications professionals like me into a new and wild frontier. When we’re presented with something like the coronavirus that has so many unknowns, it makes it very challenging to communicate with the general public.
We want to remain calm, but we’re also concerned. We want to listen to authority, but we’re not sure what information we should listen to or who to trust. And, in the midst of it all, we are seeing people literally fight for toilet paper in stores, have their bottled water purchases rationed and are suffering from really dry hands from all the hand sanitizer we’re using.
Preparing in times of crisis
As leaders, it is difficult to prepare for situations like this and it can completely upend the work being done by our teams, our business or organization. Those of us who run small businesses and nonprofits are especially vulnerable because we don’t have the resources that larger organizations do.
But it is times like these when leaders need to be at their best. There cannot be an absence of leadership during a crisis (and I do believe we are in crisis mode) because our people are looking to us for guidance during times of uncertainty.
There are several things you can do to manage your business and organization in crisis:
Refer to trusted sources for information
As you build your plans for coronavirus communication and operations, I cannot stress this enough. Your friend’s Facebook post, your colleague or even your boss are generally not the best places to look for information unless they can directly site reputable sources. For coronavirus information, go directly to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html, a local infectious disease specialist at a hospital, your state health department (State of Ohio Department of Health https://odh.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/odh/know-our-programs/Novel-Coronavirus/2019-nCoV) or local health department for information. When you communicate, refer to these sources so that people know the information can be trusted.
Pull your team together to discuss and build your plans
Even small businesses need to be prepared. Assemble your team and develop your contingency plan. Some questions you can ask include:
- How will coronavirus affect the way we do business?
- What contingency plans do we need to have in place?
- How do we communicate with our clients, vendors and others we work with? How often? When do we start?
- Do we need to pare back or change deadlines on things we are working on?
- Will we need to hold off on hiring or furlough staff?
- What flexibility do we need in the way we work? If we need to close the office, do we have the ability for our team to work remotely?
- Do we have enough cash (or credit line) on hand to make payroll and pay other essential expenses if we have cashflow issues?
- Do we need to close or restrict our business to visitors?
- Do we need to plan for extended sick time for those who fall ill with coronavirus?
Put your personal social media and newsfeed on pause – and encourage others to do the same
In order to stay in business, you and your team need to do the work. Yes, people want to be in “the know” and learn the latest information, but constantly trolling social media and the news greatly reduces productivity. The more time we or our team spend on social media and scanning newsfeeds, the less time spent on work-related tasks. Plus, inaccurate information from untrusted sources that is spread via your team can derail your internal communications strategies.
Be patient and calm, but be proactive
Leaders must be patient and calm during a crisis, but they must also be proactive. Listen to concerns of your employees and provide them with accurate information and resources. Don’t panic about what you haven’t done to prepare for a situation like this. You cannot change the past but can takes steps to put plans in place and be proactive as possible.
As I mentioned earlier, we are all in a new, wild frontier and don’t know what to expect. You may need to relax sick leave policies to keep your teams healthy. You may need to have people work remotely if possible. You may need to expand time off for parents who need to pick up their college students who no longer have a place to live once their campus shuts down. And you may need to figure out how to temporarily shut down your business if quarantines are enacted.
Try to stay focused
It is very difficult to stay focused on the normal day-to-day when our current reality isn’t normal. Do your best.
And most importantly, communicate regularly with your team and audiences
People are starving for information and are seeking guidance on how to deal with this situation. The more you stay in touch with those you work with and work for, the more trust you will build with them along the way.
This week coronavirus officially hit our state of Ohio. So, now the issue is close to home. Colleges and universities are moving classes online, events are being cancelled, sports tournaments are changing their formats and some facilities are taking the temperatures of visitors before they enter the building as a precaution.
Is it too much? I have no idea. Nor do most people. But I trust that they are making these decisions based upon the best information and guidance that is available to them. As a leader, I know that is all I can do and encourage other leaders to do the same.