As the economy reopens, it’s more important than ever for businesses to stay connected with customers, employees and other stakeholders
COVID-19 has created many new challenges for companies, and communications are no exception. Among the questions that businesses have grappled with: what to communicate, when to say it, with what tone and how often? The next phase of the pandemic, with governments at home and abroad looking to start reopening the economy, will also bring its own set of challenges.
Depending on your company and industry, these might include deciding whether to continue working remotely or how to reopen offices and shops safely, as well as what new protocols to put in place. It could also mean figuring out whether to continue offering new goods or services launched during the shutdown, or how to newly engage with customers, employees and donors when events, trade shows and travel probably won’t restart for a while.
All of these decisions will need a strong communications plan to ensure that messages are landing effectively and emphatically with all stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, donors and suppliers.
When contemplating how to communicate in this new phase, here are some key things to consider.
1. Continue to put health and well-being first
Employees and customers will need to know that every decision you make is guided by your concern for their best interests, and their health and well-being. Trying to reopen without taking the necessary steps to protect safety and clearly communicating what you’re doing could lead to customer backlash and employee pushback.
2. Understand how expectations have shifted
The world has changed in the months we’ve been under lockdown, and employees’ and customers’ expectations have shifted, too. Trying to go back to business as usual will probably fail. It’s crucial to get a good feel for how expectations have changed and address how you have adapted in your communications. With social distancing, many people have more time to provide feedback, so capitalize on their willingness to do so.
3. Keep planning for contingencies
Although it looks like restrictions will start to ease, if infection numbers rise or we have the much-discussed second wave of illness, safety measures could return quickly. Also, experts are still debating how long it will take for the economy to recover. As they would for a crisis, organizations need to plan many different communications scenarios related to both COVID-19 and the economic downturn and how to communicate for each of them. Some of this may never see the light of day, but you should have communications for the various scenarios so your business can be nimble and customers can see an appreciable level of care and planning.
4. Be adaptable
Besides planning for contingencies, be adaptable in your actions and communications. The recovery phase will have lots of changes, stops and starts, so messaging will likely need to continuously evolve. It’s also important to pivot as you get feedback from employees and customers on what they need. There will also be information gaps, so be honest about what you know and don’t know.
5. Express gratitude
Thank your loyal employees, customers, investors, donors and suppliers for their support during this difficult time. Let them know that you appreciate their understanding and patience as you transition into this new world. Acknowledge that there will be more bumps along the way, and commit to doing your best to keep giving them business updates. Stay “close” by using technology.
The next stage of the pandemic will continue to require transparency, empathy, leadership and, above all, strong communications. It won’t be enough to assume that your stakeholders understand what you’re doing and why. You need to tell them—and in some cases, you’ll also need to retell and remind. It’s more imperative than ever to communicate, and then recommunicate, as we all navigate these strange and rough waters.
Kylie McMullan, principal of Vancouver-based Finch Media, is a communications strategy expert who has worked on issues and recalls across a number of industries, including health care and consumer packaged goods. Julia Smith, managing director at Finch Media, is an internal communications expert with extensive experience working in crises, among them the Ebola epidemic in 2014.