How Businesses Should Plan for Coronavirus

Joan McGuire

Two experts in crisis communications weigh in on how companies should plan ahead to deal with the disruption caused by the novel virus.

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As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, companies are increasingly feeling the pain, particularly those related to air travel, hospitality, manufacturing and small business.

Keeping communications flowing with employees and customers about what the business is doing to deal with the crisis is an important way to stymie disruption to daily operations.

Two experts in crisis communications — Wendy Lane Stevens and Lisa Heathman, both partners at public relations firm LANE/Finn Partners — discuss the kind of communications plans businesses can adopt to reduce the impact of the novel virus.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

What work are you doing with companies on managing the coronavirus crisis?

Wendy Lane Stevens: It is very similar to Y2K in 2000. At that time, we hadn’t done much crisis communications. But at Y2K, every client wanted a crisis plan. So we really did a lot of best-practices research and developed plans for our clients.

From that, our crisis work has really grown. We often work with corporate attorneys and their clients.

What is a typical plan of action companies should put in place to deal with the coronavirus?

Lisa Heathman: What we are trying to assist clients with is creating a steady stream of information. We are trying to help them remain calm and their customers remain calm, help them understand what their business-continuity plans look like.

In many cases, it is an opportunity to bring the corporate voice through to a variety of audiences.

What Oregon clients have come to you with concerns about coronavirus crisis planning?

WLS: We don’t want to give names, but they are in the financial area, the consumer space and the technology space.

How do businesses typically approach you with their concerns about managing the crisis?

LH: Some of them have been very proactive and reached out to us weeks ago. For other clients, it has been reactive, as in: “This happened and we need to respond to it.”

One of things we strive for is to plan for these things well in advance so that many of the things we will need in an urgent situation are already half-written.

We try to have our clients prepare well in advance by creating a crisis team, creating a process for communications, appointing a person who will be responsible for communication. If those things are put in place in advance, it helps things go more smoothly for the client.

Walk me through a typical communications plan to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

WLS: You need an internal crisis team. It is usually composed of the executive suite — the CEO, the CFO, the chief marketing officer, HR, IT, the company’s attorney, as well as a PR.

When there is a crisis, they meet and decide where they are in business today due to the crisis, how the crisis is evolving, and what they can do to help get rid of the crisis for employees and clients.

Then they develop statements, which usually include something like, “We are sorry this is happening, we are going to monitor the situation, and this is what we are going to do about it.”

Then the HR gets that out to employees; the marketing person gets that out to customers; the CFO gets it out to vendors and stakeholders. Each member of the team is responsible for a target audience.

Depending on the severity of the crisis, they might meet every day or every two days and discuss how people have responded and whether the plan is working. And then they come up with more messages. That type of circular process continues until the crisis is over.

LH: One thing clients don’t plan for is all the different constituencies that will require communication — everyone from internal audiences to external stakeholders. Sometimes this includes law enforcement and compliance entities.

Doing that planning process in advance gets it going more quickly when it is actually needed.

Some of our clients at this point are providing daily updates to audiences. Others are looking at providing updates weekly and providing information about how that might change.

What we have suggested to clients is that they appoint someone who is responsible for communicating updates, and being a liaison to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the local health authority.

Ensuring people know there is a point of contact is important, because they know there is a direct line of communication and they will not miss any important updates.

RELATED STORY: Why you need a crisis communications plan – before it’s is too late

Is there a lot of panic among businesses about the coronavirus, especially those businesses with large supply chains?

LH: I wouldn’t say it is panic. I would say there is an appropriate level of concern. Those clients that are in more hard-hit areas are having to make decisions quickly about keeping the level of communications right, how to keep employees healthy and ensure they are not furthering the situation.

They are making tough decisions right now about whether employees will work from home or whether to cancel events.

But, by and large, our clients have been willing to plan in a calm manner. They want to create calm for their employees and their customers.

WLS: People get nervous and don’t know what to do. That is the benefit of developing crisis plans ahead of time, so they know exactly what to do. When we develop a crisis plan, we usually meet with the client and the executive committee ahead of time and talk about what some of the crises are that they think could happen to them. We write the plan and meet again and go through it.

Then they have that plan, the best practices and everyone’s contact information. That way, the minute a crisis hits, the CEO can call the crisis committee. That gives them a lot of confidence; it helps allay fear.

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