Many of my clients in recent days have asked me questions about the communications implications of COVID-19, and I would like to share those questions as well as some helpful answers with a wider range of people who might find them useful.
For context, keep in mind that my clients are within the financial services and fintech industry, but many of these core principles apply to other industries. They reflect tried and true practices for handling high-impact, high-concern situations.
I’m happy to answer any questions you might have as well—please don’t hesitate to reach out!
How can we react to canceled industry events or company travel freezes?
Many organizations rely on industry events such as conferences and trade shows as a channel for thought leadership and as a means to interact with clients and prospects. Canceling (organizers) or not attending (attendees) is the right thing to do according to public health officials. This situation means losing a major opportunity to connect and promote new thinking and new products. A number of options exist to make up for this loss, including:
- Hosting private virtual summits or other self-organized online events
- Working with event organizers who may also want to create online events as a replacement
- Doubling down on publishing blogs, whitepapers, articles, infographics, and multimedia, and in turn ratcheting up efforts to distribute them via email, social media, and direct sharing by employees
- Encouraging and enabling employees (especially those who interact with target audiences) to engage in industry conversations on LinkedIn by using groups and by liking and commenting on posts
- Creating and promoting webinars (self-organized or sponsored by others)
- Participating more actively in media via bylines, paid placements, and interviews
Should we proactively communicate to clients or to the general public?
Organizations should absolutely assure their clients that all service levels will continue to be met, as well as communicate any operational changes or implications (contact methods, response times). Consider the following tactics given client footprint and the nature of client relationships:
- Unambiguous emails reaffirming service-level commitments. Be sure to be transparent about any potential changes and provide proactive guidance of what clients can do if they have issues or concerns
- Proactive communication by phone from relationship managers to their key client points of contact
- Posted statements on any client contact channels (website and systems accessible by clients, call center greetings, chat, auto-responders, etc.)
- Talking points for all client-facing staff (see below)
In all cases, be mindful that clients are also managing the operational impacts of COVID-19. This calls for an empathetic approach, acknowledging their challenges and their potential level of concern and stress.
As far as communication to the general public, in most cases, a simple website statement will suffice. It can be placed in a company newsroom and highlighted as a homepage feature accordingly. A press release is typically not warranted, with the exception of large public companies who might face questions from local, national, or international media about how they are responding.
Is it appropriate to promote COVID-19 related marketing messages?
Capitalizing on a crisis risks seeming highly opportunistic. I’ve thought about this one a lot, as it had a direct impact on whether I would actually write and publish this post, as well as concerns that clients have raised. The conclusion I have come to is this: only disseminate messages that have a direct and material benefit related to a specific impact of COVID-19. A hard sell or promotional message only loosely related to the pandemic would not be appropriate. Informational messages that offer tips and advice based explicitly on expertise, services, or product capabilities can actually be quite helpful. I certainly hope that is the case with this particular blog post!
How can we prepare front-office or public-facing employees to talk about COVID-19?
Communications preparation for COVID-19 should follow the best practices of crisis communications. Most notably:
- Identify a point person (or team in larger organizations) who is ultimately accountable for creating and operationalizing all messaging
- Make sure everyone who might communicate with the public has access to clear and consistent talking points
- Anticipate tough questions or challenges to talking points, and provide answers to those as part of the communications package used by public-facing employees
- Coach C-level executives and other top leaders in group and/or one-on-one sessions on how to deliver talking points
- Establish clear protocols for referring any inquiries or sticky situations to designated point persons, and make sure employees do not “go rogue” with inconsistent or inaccurate messages
Here is some excellent additional information about crisis communications from the Institue for Public Relations.
How can we stay informed without information overload?
News stories like COVID-19 tend to have a life of their own. Media outlets, bloggers, social media users, government bodies, NGOs, businesses, and many others are generating news and information. It’s very easy for people to get lost in the amount of information, or to struggle with separating valid information from misconceptions and disinformation.
Smaller organizations can appoint someone to monitor news from reputable sources (the Centers for Disease Control or other national health bodies, the World Health Organization, etc.), from global media such as the Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, etc., and from highly reputable trade media (such as The Banker or American Banker in financial services). Many of these are now offering a COVID-19 daily e-mail newsletter. Google News Alerts can be a helpful tool for staying on top of coverage. A designated media monitor can make a shortlist of the day’s most relevant and accurate news.
Larger organizations should activate existing news monitoring and research resources (in-house or third-party) to monitor news more intensively. In addition to monitoring general news about the spread of the pandemic and its impact in locations where they operate, they should also monitor for mentions of their own company, their top competitors, and they major clients in the context of COVID-19.
In both small and large organizations, curating news and sharing it internally will employees cope with the turbulent COVID-19 news climate. First figure out news sources and mechanisms for monitoring them, and then plan how to keep employees updated via internal emails, intranets or internal portals, and other internal employee communications channels.
The common thread to all of these answers is this: 1) take a calm, planful, and measured approach; 2) adapt flexibly to changing circumstances as they evolve; and 3) anticipate the needs of both communicators and audiences with thoughtful empathy.