Since the coronavirus landed on U.S. shores, the media has been working overtime—not only describing the symptoms and areas affected to those seeking information but also how the outbreak is impacting business. Whether it be the dramatic stock market drop, large-scale event postponements or travel cancellations, organizations need to assess what’s most important to communicate to a concerned public. 

Biz Briefing – OTM CEO, Miles Kailburn

Reported cases of the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) are growing at an alarmingly rapid rate, with the first diagnosis officially announced in Colorado earlier this week.

While the virus presents significant health risks, it also presents challenges for businesses who must ride out the pending.

Negative impact as a result of an economic crisis such as this is typically felt by the creative services industry a few months after the negative impacts are felt by our clients. That being said, thought leaders in the creative industry are projecting a 2-8 month “impact” window – which goes to show that all businesses will be impacted in some capacity, at some point.

In a recent virtual meeting with fellow agency owners around the country, we discussed the potential challenges of the current economic landscape.

Through our discussion, we determined that there are likely three tiers of impact to be expected:

  • Primary Impact: Schools/Higher Education, Events, Hospitality/Restaurants, Tourism, and Entertainment Venues
  • Secondary Impact: Supply Chain Driven Industries such as Automotive/Powersports, High Tech and Manufacturing
  • Tertiary Impact: Professional Service-Based Businesses (such as ours in the creative services industry)

In an effort to operate effectively during this evolving and rather unpredictable crisis situation, there are a few steps that business owners can take to mitigate the impact in the long run:

  • Be proactive around shifting existing meetings to video or conference calls
  • Remain flexible and understanding with your vendors and clients to maintain positive relationships with partners. Your relationship will ultimately outlast this crisis situation.
  • Maintain a fiscally responsible position and forecast your finances appropriately

Businesses are likely to feel the impact on their bottom line as it becomes necessary for workers and clients to self-isolate or remain in quarantine. In order to prepare your organization and ensure the safety of your team and customers, we are recommending all of our clients consider taking the following steps, as needed.

Internal Strategy Insight – OTM CSO, Kerrie Luginbill

Communicate with employees early and often. No matter where you are located in the world, if you have not already communicated with your employees about your plans to respond to the coronavirus, you are behind.

Communicating early and thoroughly can help reduce panic and anxiety among your workforce.

While you may still be finalizing details like compensation if employees are unable to come to work or whether or not to close your office, it is important to let your team know that you are working on a plan to address these concerns.

Internal communications should include the following:

  • A message that your organization is aware of the situation and making contingency plans to limit the disruption to business
  • Information about precautionary measures that are being taken, such as restricting nonessential travel, canceling events or sanitizing common spaces
  • Unbiased, fact-based resources that employees can turn to for additional information like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website and the World Health Organization website.
  • Work-from-home policies
  • A specific point of contact for questions

Now is the time to revisit your crisis communications plan and host a meeting with your team to review it. With a crisis of this nature, it is especially important to ensure that you have a clear chain of command detailed in your communication plan, with backup options to account for the potential that key decision-makers may be sick and unable to participate in decision making.

Items that should be included in your crisis communications plan:

  • Chain of command for decision making related to closures
  • Chain of command for fielding media inquiries
  • Phone numbers for all team members and key stakeholders
  • Phone numbers for your local health department
  • Holding statements for addressing coronavirus exposure

After you have updated your crisis communications plan, it’s time to run through potential scenarios and make sure that all key team members are aware of the role they will play should you need to activate the plan. Given the likelihood that at least one member of your team will be impacted by the virus, whether infected themselves or unable to work as they care for a sick loved one, it is critical to cross-train employees.

Remote Readiness – OTM Specialist, Spencer Flores

There is an unprecedented increase in remote work happening around the world due to circumstances resulting from COVID-19.

If you’re implementing remote working practices or are expecting an increase in demand, be sure to consider the following tools are functional and all employees have been trained or provided with instruction on use.

Things to consider include:

  • Remote Server Access to File Share Platforms (VPN) – with more users connecting remotely, administrators should consider their users’ collaboration traffic as part of the remote network planning.
  • Digital Collaboration (Ex.: Google Docs, Sheets, Slides) – keeping a business functional while the workforce is scattered presents multiple challenges. Workers and managers may need to adopt new practices, rely on cloud-based applications and other technologies to keep productivity going.
  • Email Platforms – in a remote setting, decisions are often made with fewer people in the “virtual room.” Whether you continue with remote work or everyone returns back to the office after this period, you’ll be grateful for having a “paper trail” of decisions made during this period.
  • Video Conferencing (Ex.: Zoom) – in non-ideal network conditions, users can connect using the phone numbers associated with their meetings. While video is a valuable part of remote collaboration, limiting video use to only presenters or key users is a way you can lower the network bandwidth used by the client.
  • Chat Interfaces (Ex.: Slack, iMessage, Google Hangouts) – isolation is a significant challenge for regular remote employees. This feeling is heightened when individuals are stuck at home under stressful conditions with limited outlets to connect with one another. Check-in on them. Encourage them to check in on one another—not just to make sure they are working, but also in recognition that they are humans. Remember to check-in on their mental well being and talk about things outside of work.

We recommend our clients hold a quick check-in meeting daily, whether in-person or virtually, to review key roles, new developments, and responsibilities, as they may change quickly in this rapidly evolving situation.

PR Perspective – OTM Specialist, Jana Beasley

During times of crisis, maintaining a calm, collected brand voice and keeping open channels of communication with clients, team members, and stakeholders is critical.

Remember: consumer response to the crisis in any given situation is driven by timing, trust, and transparency.

At this time, practicing proactive communication efforts is vital to companies across all industries. Doing so helps to ensure minimal impact on the overall external sentiment for the company or organization.

Given the rapid spread of the virus and the likelihood that a majority of organizations will be impacted in one way or another, we recommend that all organizations begin communicating with clients and external stakeholders about their preparedness. The purpose of such communications is to reassure your clients that you are aware of the severity of the situation and have contingency plans in place to address the situation, should your organization be directly impacted.

Another important factor for a successful messaging strategy is to ensure that your organization does not spread any misinformation. It is important to clarify your media policy with your entire team and clearly identify which of your employees are authorized to act as spokespeople and make sure all team members know who to refer media inquiries to.

Issuing Media Holding/Response Statements is one outlet commonly overlooked:

  • Be sure to update your holding statements to include messaging addressing coronavirus.
  • If your organization is directly impacted by coronavirus or an employee or client becomes ill, time will be of the essence.
  • Having statements prepared will allow you to move as quickly as possible to share information with key stakeholders.

The general public will also rely heavily on digital information updates, most citing their news from social media platforms, primarily Facebook. Now is the time to implement an organized, yet flexible messaging schedule, with relevant and carefully curated content.

Social Strategy – OTM Specialist, Natalie Omiecinski

We live in a world of misinformation on social media. When crises like this happen, it’s your responsibility, as a social media manager or strategist, to ensure the integrity of the information put out on social media.

It is also important to remember that social media strategy is not one-sided.

A recent guide released by Twitter states “brands must understand the unique roles they play in people’s lives, how those roles have changed due to the coronavirus and what they can do to help, rather than copying what other brands are doing.”

This reminds us that you can’t just put information out in the ether – a good strategy involves “social listening.” This means that it is key to respond to comments and messages from concerned parties. Work closely with your PR team to ensure that you are responding to these messages with the same sentiment that they would. Social media should enhance your PR communications.

Tips to follow:

  • Work closely with your PR team
  • Make sure that your posts are empathetic
  • Only post accurate and truthful information
  • Listen to your audience and engage with them
  • Do not play into fear-mongering
  • Do NOT try to capitalize on the crisis as a “marketing opportunity”

Email Insight – OTM Specialist, Hailey Bouche

By taking quick action to speak about how a crisis is being prioritized, your client is more likely to trust you and your business.

In a time of crisis, email newsletters offer an effective and reliable way to communicate. Considering email lists are received by targeted audiences, typically made up of current or potential clients or customers, sending information regarding safety and awareness is necessary. Posts on social media have an ability to reach masses, but with the influx of posts in one day, it is likely that the audience you need to reach will not see your post.

Emails are almost guaranteed to be seen.

While you don’t need to share the entirety of your crisis plan publicly, we recommend including the following items:

  • A statement about how you are prioritizing employee and client safety and will continue to closely monitor the situation
  • Details about preventative measures that are underway within your organization
  • A link to a webpage where clients can find the latest information about your response. The information below discusses what to include on this page.

Be Resourceful to Remedy Symptoms of Stress

Launch a Resource Landing Page
In a quickly moving situation, having a centralized location where updates and the latest information can be compiled is key to avoiding confusion. Many organizations have already created landing pages dedicated to providing information about the coronavirus and their mitigation efforts. We recommend that clients place a link to a dedicated resource page on the homepage of their website.

Key information to include on the page:

  • Details about your contingency plans. If you serve clients in-person, include information about whether your locations are open or not and how you will or will not serve clients if you close.
  • Preventative measures that are underway. If your organization is encouraging employees to work from home, reduce nonessential travel, implement additional cleaning procedures or take any other precautions to minimize the risk of exposure, share these details.
  • Links to external resources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website and the World Health Organization website.
  • A statement that the webpage reflects the situation as it currently stands and as this is a rapidly evolving situation, your organization will continue to evaluate the best course of action and update the page with the latest information as it is available.
  • Contact information for your primary media spokesperson and leadership team member overseeing coronavirus preparedness.

Resource Implementation – A.S. Dir., Rachel McIntyre

Now is the right time to evaluate your resources, as well as provide resources of benefit to your audience. As a liaison between our clients and their audiences, we value our role as a trusted resource for both parties. We recommend extending your expert insight or services as able to support your brand, your audience, and your industry. 

Some examples of our clients enacting this role:

Regardless of the type of brand, reacting and preparing for a coronavirus outbreak should follow the rules of a typical PR crisis, even though this seems to be a newer threat with unknown repercussions. Looking at a crisis strategy is the remedy for a quick recovery, and can help brands get a head start on how to communicate with their audiences.

We hope this article will act as a guide for businesses of all varieties during this trying time, and we encourage our existing clients to reach out to us for support in the creation and implementation of crisis communications-related services.

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