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How to manage your communications during the COVID-19 pandemic

by | Mar 14, 2020

Hints and tips for SMEs

I’ve been working in PR and communications for over 20 years, so I’ve lived through a fair few significant crises and challenging situations: way back from Princess Diana’s tragic death to 9/11 and the Iraq War, and from CJD to swine flu and SARS.

All of these had an impact on my communications activities at the time, but I don’t think any of them were a match for what we’re dealing with now.

Getting your communications right during this period is really important but, particularly for smaller organisations currently focused on their own survival, comms may not be top of your worry list right now.

So, at a time when we need to do what we can to support each other (and as a new small business owner myself with my own anxieties about the impact of this) I thought it would be helpful to share a few of my key tips for the communications that even the smallest organisations will be able to follow.

  1. Internal Communications
    Often seen as the poor relation in the communications family, for this particular situation, internal communications is really important right now.However small your team, I would recommend creating a simple internal comms plan. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have all the answers, it will be reassuring to your staff to receive regular updates from you. Make sure you tell them you’re going to be doing this, as well as when and how.

    You need to get the balance right so that you’re not panicking or overwhelming them. An email at the end of every day is easy to manage and doesn’t require investment in specialist comms tools or apps. Use it to give a quick update and ensure staff feel part of a supported team – it might mean that they go home feeling a little less anxious. If you have employees working from home or off site, then this daily contact is even more important.

    Depending on the size of your team, you could also consider having a named person as the primary CV-19 contact and let staff know that if they’re worried, they can speak to that person or email their worries to them – like a sort of workplace first aider. They don’t have to know all the answers on the spot, but it might be useful for gathering the concerns that your team have – there may be things there that you haven’t thought of.
    If you’re all based in the same building, you could introduce a daily or weekly stand-up briefing to your team – never underestimate the power of actually speaking to people.

    2. Social media
    Social media is designed to reach your broadest audiences, but some organisations use it to get information out quickly – particularly out of hours – to their employees too.If you do choose to communicate with staff this way (and it’s not my recommendation), just remember that anyone can read the post, therefore the message needs to be thought through to ensure it isn’t going to cause alarm amongst your customers.During such unprecedented times, you could try using your social media accounts in more creative ways.

    How about adding in the occasional ‘thought for the day’ or uplifting quote, or a photo showing solidarity between the staff in the office? Or use it to give a random act of kindness – offer something for free to those that are struggling, or even just send supportive messages to your suppliers.

    At the very least, you will likely gain some new followers, and probably increase likeability for your brand. If you do use it to publicise a kind act, it may even get picked up by the traditional media.
    Remember though that social media takes time and effort. Ideally you need to post at least a 2-3 times a day as an absolute minimum, and you also need to engage in a little bit of two-way dialogue.

    3. Media relations
    There’s no getting away from it – this is a terrible time for anyone attempting to achieve media interest in any story that isn’t related to coronavirus.

    But if media exposure is important to you right now, there are a few options to consider:

  • Work COVID-19 into the news story. This approach comes with a warning as it could look cynical or scaremongering. However, if you’re doing something positive, such as donating something to charity or offering support in some way, then go for it.
  • Offer yourself up as a spokesperson for your industry to the media. A good PR expert will be able to give you the names of some key journalists you should be engaging with and you can drop them a short email explaining who you are, what your business is, and the angle that you could talk about, should they need a spokesperson or a quote. They are having to regularly replenish these hungry news pages, airwaves and websites with new coronavirus stories so they may be glad to hear from you.
  • Be agile. By this, I mean that if you have a press release that you are planning to release to the media, see whether you can make it less time sensitive, so that if there is a very slight lull in CV-19 news one morning, you can press the button on your piece at that moment. Whilst the opportunities are few and far between, the media do still need a few alternative stories and if you have a strong or quirky announcement, you might get lucky. Later in the week is often better for getting your news picked up too, as journalists are usually looking for content to fill the weekends with.
  1. Your website
    This depends on your type of business, but with the escalating panic, I do believe that most businesses should think about having at least a couple of sentences on the home page of their webpage setting out how they are managing the risk of coronavirus.It doesn’t have to be detailed, and again the tone should be reassuring and measured. I have already seen a couple of food-related businesses saying things like ‘we are educating our staff in good hygiene practice’, which now makes me worry that they were previously deficient in cleanliness skills when preparing my morning latte.If there are expected delays to your service, you can add a line about this too, in order to manage customer expectations, whilst at the same time reassuring that you are doing everything you can to continue to deliver a good service.
  2. Marketing emails
    A few people have been posting comments about this on social media and we’ve all received them and probably reacted in the same way, so I thought it was worth a quick mention.DO NOT USE CORONAVIRUS AS AN EXCUSE TO SEND A MARKETING EMAIL. Enough said.And finally, a few tips on communications styles to adopt across all of your communications channels.

Keep it honest

  • Don’t promise that everything will be okay unless you absolutely know it will, otherwise you will lose trust later on. People respect honesty and are more likely to be loyal to it.

Keep it simple

  • Don’t go into too much detail. People don’t need to know every worry that’s in your head or exactly what the bank manager said to you.

Avoid jargon

  • Remember to communicate like one human being talking to another human being and avoid sounding too corporate.

Catherine Frankpitt is founder and director of Strike Communications Ltd.
e. catherine@strikecommunications.co.uk
Twitter: @cfrankpitt