“Houston, we have a problem!" and it's one that can't be solved by making one phone call, sending an e-mail, or issuing a statement. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, brands are being tested for their speed of response and pulling themselves together in the new situation. Whether the result will be positive depends on many factors, one of which is internal crisis communication. How to handle it to pass this test?
417,000 is the number of mentions of the coronavirus (according to IMM data) that have appeared in electronic and traditional media - and the data concerns only the period of February 26 to March 26*. As a society, we want to know more, so we follow news websites, read the alerts sent by the Government Centre for Security, and click on PUSH notifications. However, the polyphony of the media is not always reliable - it’s easy to get lost in it. You need a guide to get you out of the communication jungle, someone you trust and whose well-balanced opinion on the matter will sound reassuring. For many people, that someone is the employer. According to the special report ”Trust and the Coronavirus”, as many as 63% of respondents consider the employer to be the most reliable source of information, while over ¾ of respondents clearly declare that they expect support and protection from the company they work for. The reorganisation of activities and efficient internal communication are the tasks faced by brands. How to go about it?
Although all this seems obvious, a glance at the contemporary media leaves no doubt that they abound with subjects which are - to put it mildly - trivial. This means that you have to break through a real informational maze. So don't forget to hold a pen in one hand and a sharp machete in the other - and that will be...
Every crisis breaks out unexpectedly, but usually, we already have developed certain standards of operation and can rely on them to contain it. The crisis management bible tells us about the "5P" principle - admit your mistake, apologise, take corrective action, compensate for the loss, and better yourself for the future. In the current situation - the coronavirus pandemic - this model will not work, none the less. So how to act? Quickly but reasonably. The important thing is to plan and take well-thought-out action. According to this principle, some brands assemble crisis boards, and HR and PR departments’ communicators and mailboxes get red hot. Others bring in people from outside. Which option is better? There is no good answer to this question. Whether a brand will start working on its own or in a tandem depends on its character, "processing power", and size. It’s worth remembering that crisis brings on chaos, and it’s difficult to control everything in such conditions. Then it’s good to be able to fall back on external support.
Wee all like order
As we have already mentioned, it’s important to have a plan, whose primary aim is to reduce the risk of epidemics in the company. Many issues must be taken into account when it’s being developed - e.g. government procedures or rules of epidemiological conduct issued by the Main Sanitary Inspectorate. All this is to have the knowledge of what to do in case of a possible first infection and what measures to take to protect the other employees. It’s advisable to define what you want to communicate to office and shop floor workers and how you want to go about it. In this difficult time, it’s not uncommon for employees to gossip or think up bleak scenarios, so a clear and unambiguous message from the company - one informing them what the situation is like and what preventive measures have been taken - is essential to maintain general peace of mind and to ensure that all precautions are observed. Up-to-date and regular messages will make employees feel safer and let them pull themselves together in the new situation.
Make sure the communications are clear - they should respond to actual questions and needs without raising doubts. It’s also worth using various distribution channels. The electronic way will be perfect for people who have switched to the remote mode of work, but it may not be enough for shop floor workers. This is the challenge we faced when conducting crisis communication for our Client who manages the work of 700 people at two production facilities. What did we do? Knowing the specifics of the company, we suggested that the Client should opt for direct contact - after all, no one will present the company’s current situation to shop floor workers better than managers of particular shifts. It is in them that the subordinates have the greatest confidence and it is them that can answer questions about issues that concern the workers. Creating the knowledge base and equipping the production managers with it was crucial to the whole project. The preparation for the talks involved developing FAQ - a collection of the most frequently asked questions and answers to them, which were guidelines for superiors..
Prevention is better than cure
As far as the crisis communication caused by the COVID-19 epidemic is concerned, educational activities must not be forgotten. Clear instructions, information on precautionary measures, and materials that provide a knowledge basis concerning the virus are essential to reduce the risk of infection among workers.
When cooperating with our Client, we focused on the fastest possible action as well as bilingual communication to also ensure the safety of foreign workers. We created educational materials in double-quick time, bearing in mind the brand’s visual identification system. The posters and leaflets we produced provided clear information on the virus and relevant ways of prevention. The company’s workers found out how to wash their hands properly, how to recognise the symptoms of the virus infection and distinguish them from the symptoms of flu, as well as what to do in case of infection. We sent newsletters to the mailboxes of the administrative staff providing information previously conveyed in the form of posters and leaflets with a view of taking care of those working from home.
We also supplemented the educational materials with a glossary of terms and infographics provided by the Ministry of Health. In line with the gamification philosophy, we created a knowledge quiz to prepare employees to orientate themselves in the new situation even better. The considerable number of employees participating in the electronic games and their great interest in the materials developed by us were testimony to our taking the right direction. The company’s employees approached the unusual situation more calmly and decided to keep working in this difficult time. Can we say that it’s a success? It’s too early for that, but we have a sense of a job well done.
When prevention is not enough
Every company should take into account that, despite preventive measures, an employee may become infected. What should you do when you notice such a case? The key element of crisis communication will be to inform the local community, especially if the production facility employs hundreds of people and is important for the region’s economy. It’s important to remember to send an official message to the local authorities and the press to inform them about the current situation - the number of infected employees, the company's continued operations and employment stability, as well as planned actions based on government procedures.
We don’t know how brands will cope with the crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, we know very well that efficiently handled communication within the company makes it possible to control the situation and provides a sense of security translating into high employee attendance, which is particularly important in the case of brands which, due to the nature of their operations, cannot implement the remote work mode. Besides, it also creates an interpersonal bond, which can only pay dividends in the long run.
*monitoring of the keyword coronavirus from February 26 to March 26 2020, 12.00 noon.