With COVID-19 dominating the news, we’re hearing from many clients facing a range of communications issues surrounding this evolving crisis, and having lots of discussions among PR industry leaders about how we all can help. In the spirit of being a useful strategic communications resource, we wanted to share this e-alert as a quick summary of our current thinking on this situation.

Whether you’re a city wondering how best to inform your stakeholders about impacts on scheduled public meetings and festivals, access to public facilities and other related concerns… or a company wondering how to navigate business disruptions and communicate effectively with your customers… we imagine your organization may be struggling with the rapidly changing and uncertain nature of this issue.

Our team of experts has dealt with numerous, high-stakes crisis communications issues in the past. While COVID-19 has its own unique aspects, many of the same crisis management strategies still apply.

To help you out, below are a few of the key communications guidelines that we recommend clients follow in a situation like this.

General Guidelines for Strategic Communications During a Public Health Crisis

1) Where appropriate, defer to the experts. With a rapidly changing, complex global public health issue, it’s perfectly acceptable to point your stakeholders to the CDC and other public health officials if they are seeking in-depth, frequently updated information about what’s going on – and what they should do about it.

2) Make sure you over-communicate about your own stakeholder-specific issues. Now is not the time to leave your customers guessing about whether you’ve considered the potential impact on them – and when they can expect to hear more from you about any critical decisions that need to be made (potential cancellations of in-person meetings or events, refund policies, service disruptions, etc.). It’s better to be proactive than reactive in letting customers know that this topic is front-of-mind, and that you’re carefully but promptly evaluating how to adapt so you can continue fulfilling your brand promise to them.

3) Make information readily accessible. At the very least, a brief informational update should be posted on your website homepage with links to outside resources for a deeper dive, where appropriate. Don’t neglect your social media channels. Consider sending e-blasts periodically, but in a measured way (you can also easily overdo it, as we’re all getting inundated with messages at this moment).

4) Be compassionate and flexible. Avoid the perception that you’re hiding behind a heartless corporate voice. We’re all human, we’re all uncertain about what’s next and many of us are worried – if not for ourselves, then at least for our loved ones. The voice and tenor of your current communications, and the flexibility with which you apply the usual customer policies, should reflect a sincere understanding of others’ perspectives and predicaments.

5) Be honest about what you know and can do – and what you don’t know and can’t do. No one expects you to have all of the information, when there are so many variables and so much is rapidly changing. It’s okay to say what you know, and what you don’t know – as well as what you can and can’t do at this time to help your customers.

6) Don’t forget your internal customers. As they say on the plane, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. Make sure you’re taking good care of your people and your organization, and then you’ll be better equipped to take care of your customers. This means communicating frequently and reassuringly, but also honestly, with your internal stakeholders, and doing whatever you can to make sure they have a safe, healthy work environment – and that they also know what your expectations are for their ongoing interactions with external stakeholders.

For more detailed and customized guidance, please feel free to contact me directly at colby@cookseypr.com, 972-580-0662 x23 or mobile 214-893-3503. We would be happy to serve as a resource to you, as needed.

Colby Walton
President & Partner