COVID-19 Coronavirus Disease 2019

To say that this is a difficult time for our nation, the world and our organizations is an understatement. Never are our relationships with our stakeholders more important than they are today—during a time of uncertainty, fear and concern that has swept the globe.

You have probably received messages from some of your vendors about the steps they are taking to protect their employees and customers.  Like me, you probably have noted that some messages are more reassuring than others.  And although you’ve probably heard this, too:  prepare, respond, don’t panic.

If you have not already taken steps—both actions and communications—I encourage you to move swiftly to reassure employees, customers and all your important stakeholders of the actions you are taking to minimize the impact, to the best of your ability, of covid-19.

SOURCES FOR CREDIBLE INFORMATION

There are numerous sources of excellent, science-based information for your reference.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is packed with valuable information to help you. We consider this site one of the best resources for the information needed to prepare, prevent and mitigate the effects of covid-19.  Guidelines to help keep the workforce safe tips to protect yourself, the latest updates,  and how to prepare are among the resources on the site.  I encourage you to review updates on a daily basis to help guide prudent decision-making.  Community mitigation guidelines are found here.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to communicate effectively.  The CDC offers several free communication resources in  multiple languages for organizations, including handouts and posters, videos and guidelines for public health communicators.

If your organization is international in scope, the World Health Organization (WHO) is another excellent source of science-backed information.

Unfortunately, there are those out there who seek to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals during this health crisis. The WHO has a page dedicated to scam alerts.

Key media outlets like The New York Times have made their covid-19 articles and data available free of charge. You might want to sign up for their daily update newsletter to stay abreast of covid-19 news. They have included a helpful covid-19 glossary of terms on their site.

The Wall Street Journal published a useful article titled “The Coronavirus and Your Job: What the Boss Can—and Can’t—Make You Do.”

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company says in its online briefing note, “ A range of outcomes is possible. Don’t assume the worst.” They are providing a full briefing that I found very informative, updated weekly.

Stay safe and healthy,

Deborah Hileman, SCMP

TIME TO DUST OFF THE PANDEMIC PLAN

Today I read a useful article on pandemic planning by Lisa M. Koonin in the Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning. The article outlines practical steps that organizations should take now to prepare for a pandemic.  I thought a summary might be useful for my colleagues.

Many businesses created pandemic plans a decade or more ago when we faced H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola and other health crises.  Unfortunately many of those plans have since been gathering dust on the shelf. It is time to dust them off and update them for today’s pandemic, COVID-19.

Planning for a pandemic is an essential part of business continuity planning for any organization.  But especially for organizations that provide vital services, such as healthcare, infrastructure and the food supply, a plan is a must. Those businesses that not only have  a pandemic plan, but that regularly test and update it, can significantly reduce the risk to employees, customers, the community and the business itself.

The depth and breadth of COVID-19 is changing daily, and it befits leaders to access information being provided by the scientific and healthcare communities to understand what’s happening, both in their local community, across their business and the world in general.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (https://cdc.gov) and the World Health Organization (https://who.int) are two organizations that are providing constantly updated, science-based information to help individuals, organizations and communities make plans and take actions to protect people and help slow the spread of the virus.

Developing a response to a pandemic can’t be done in a few hours.  Organizations are complex, with a lot of moving parts that make response complicated.  Among the areas to consider:

  • Employee exposure to illness in the workplace and absenteeism that reaches 30 percent or more may severely disrupt operations;
  • Supply chain and transportation disruptions and shortages can impact production;
  • Severe reductions in demand for products or services may force layoffs;
  • Increased operational expense amid revenue shortfalls hurt the bottom line; and
  • Reputational risk and damage to the brand can threaten survival of the enterprise.

Organizations that must remain operational in the face of a pandemic play a critical role in supporting civil society. Those that operate globally must be especially vigilant in pandemic planning. Countries are closing borders to travelers and migrants, and eventually we may see significant disruption to the cross-border transport of goods, as well.

Existing business continuity plans created for natural disasters already contain many of the elements needed for a pandemic plan. There are additional considerations that should be noted. For example, while a natural disaster typically impacts one area, a pandemic may affect the entire country at once, meaning that a company may not be able to simply move people or resources from one region to another. We’re at the stage with COVID-19 where there is uncertainty about how severe the impact will be, so recommendations from public health officials are likely to change frequently.  Planners should subscribe to daily updates from a variety of sources, including mainstream media and government entities. Experts recommend that pandemic plans include response strategies that range from mild to severe levels of infection.

According to Koonin, there are four important areas of business pandemic preparedness that are relevant for any level of severity: continuity planning; workforce protection; protecting customers and the broader community. Testing components of the pandemic plan with exercises, while a critical part of effective planning, may not be possible in the coming months.

Business continuity planning should consider a number of areas, including:

  • Response management/leadership team
    • Leading by example
    • Succession planning
    • Every member of the crisis management team needs a backup
  • Staffing amid significant absenteeism
    • Cross training, remote work
    • Sick leave policy, sending sick employees home
    • Restricting travel
    • Social distancing in the workplace
    • Disinfecting the workplace if anyone has tested positive
    • Additional employee services that may be needed temporarily
  • Communications with internal and external stakeholders
    • Crisis communications plan
    • Educating employees and stakeholders about the pandemic, including protective measures recommended by health agencies
  • IT systems capacity and backup
    • Support for teleworking employees
    • Tele- and video-conference capabilities/skills
  • Remote work equipment and access to internet
    • Systems security, VPN access, etc.
    • Postponing or canceling large in-person meetings/conferences
  • Addressing supply chain issues
    • Backup suppliers if primary suppliers unable to maintain needed levels
  • Public health considerations
    • Credible sources of local information, collaboration with other organizations as appropriate
    • Shared best practices
  • Alternatives to delivering goods and services
    • Protecting customers
    • Minimizing physical contact between employees and customers
    • Tissues and hand sanitizers
    • Effective signage to inform customers

Organizations that act quickly to implement existing or new crisis management and communications plans stand the best chance of weathering the coronavirus storm.

Businesses:  Think of Reopening as a Major Change Initiative

Think of reopening your business as a major change management initiative.

As a general rule, people do not like change.  We do not like disruption.  And coronavirus has been the most disruptive force in our lifetimes, hands down.

Individuals have different physical, mental and emotional capacities for ambiguity and significant change. Once our change “sponge” is full, we have reached our capacity and dysfunction may then set in absent strategies to build resilience and coping skills.  Recognizing that is the first step in building a reopening plan and communications strategy to support it. Effective communications are a critical component of any successful change.

First and always, communications plans must be created and executed with empathy and compassion. Each person will have different concerns and viewpoints about what has transpired.  How the organization treats each individual and manages its reopening will become public knowledge and may have a lasting impact on the reputation of the company and its leaders.

Start with the basics.  It has been said before, and I will say it again:  you cannot overcommunicate.  Talk early and often. Repeat messages over and over. You cannot put out a message just once and expect that everyone received it, understood it, and is ready to change their thinking or behavior upon it.

Be honest and direct. Do not sugarcoat things.

Listen at least as much as you talk. It is ok to say “we don’t know yet” so long as you can assure stakeholders that you will share information as quickly as possible.

Make sure that safety and security of employees, customers and other stakeholders are at the top of the priority list.

Communicate clearly and frequently about what you are doing. Establish a communications schedule and stick to it. If you do not have decisions you can talk about, then talk about the process and timing to make decisions.

Employees rightly are your first communications priority. Business leaders will have to rebuild trust with employees such that they feel that it is safe for them to return to their workspaces. They have to feel that you are doing everything possible to protect them. If they do not believe in what you are doing, that skepticism will rub off on everyone with whom they interact.

As you think through operational plans, start by listening to staff concerns. We all have been talking about “the new normal,” but we are not yet sure what that really means.  Tell stakeholders that your plans will evolve and change as new information becomes available.

Consider short surveys or virtual focus groups to learn employees’ concerns, and to help them feel like they have a voice in the process. There are free tools available online to conduct simple surveys and hold video calls with small groups.

Provide every employee with a detailed safety plan to help instill confidence that leadership has their health and safety uppermost in planning and execution of the reopening.

Recognize that a return to some form of ‘normal’ may not be linear.  You will have to set new expectations for how people interact with one another in the close proximity of retail establishments, offices and public workspaces. Staff will need training and will need to be armed with information to answer questions from customers and other stakeholders. Senior leaders must model the behaviors expected from staff.

Customers will have the same kinds of expectations but they may also want to know how you are protecting your employees. Corporate social responsibility efforts, which recently have been focused on community support, should also recognize that customers care about the employees they interact with at your company.  Employees who feel safe and respected will convey that same sense of well being to customers. In turn, customers who feel that the company is taking care of “their own” will reward your efforts with return business.

#changemanagement #crisiscommunications #covid19communications #businessreopenings

When a business crisis erupts, time is of the essence. Call us now: (888) 708-8351.

Crisis Communication Management Certification Course Now Available Online

ICM offering its popular course online for the first time

ICM’s popular Crisis Communication Management Certification Course is now being offered online, with class beginning June 2, 2020.

This intensive course focuses on managing sudden crises and techniques for preventing smoldering internal business issues from going “public” or minimizing the damage to the organization’s ongoing business when public disclosure cannot be avoided.

The program takes place in seven (7) two-hour sessions from June 2-23, 2020.

Enrollment is limited and this program is expected to fill quickly. ICM’s in-person program is also available later this year, August 11-12 in Chicago, and October 13-14 in Louisville, Ky.

To learn more or to register for the online or in-person course, click here.

Deborah Hileman, SCMP
ICM President and CEO

CEO Expertise for Every Client

Deborah Hileman, SCMP, President and CEO. A certified strategic communication management professional (SCMP), business leader, coach and consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in public and private companies and non-profit organizations, Ms. Hileman has led high-performing communications and marketing teams in health care, manufacturing, insurance and financial services, nonprofits and higher education. Her most significant areas of expertise include strategic communications planning and reputation/crisis management, change management, employee engagement and communication training.

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