Adapting Crisis Response Plans for the Long-Term During COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

By Michael Fox & Tim Streeb

ICR’s work with more than 750 corporate clients across sectors has shown us that many existing crisis communications plans are designed to deal with isolated emergencies, disasters and other one-off challenges (external or self-inflicted ) companies may face as they build their businesses.

In some cases – a product recall, a data breach, or bankruptcy filing – there is a playbook of actions companies must take to maintain compliance. In others, the incidents are relatively short in duration, and with proper action, communication and disclosure, can be resolved within days or weeks.

However, with many sources predicting the COVID-19 outbreak will last for months, and the long-term cultural impacts of the pandemic yet to be seen, many organizations may need to adopt longer-term crisis communications strategies that address their  ability to weather this extended period of adversity while communicating a hopeful vision for the future.

A tricky balancing act, indeed.

Credibility and trust is built through honesty and transparency, so a realistic and pragmatic approach, combined with a commitment to the facts and executional discipline, is necessary. As possible, companies should communicate reasons for optimism so that stakeholders including investors, employees, customers, channel partners, government agencies and other groups with influence over some or all of your operations understand your strategic plans for the future. Critically for the foreseeable future, this education process should include specific steps leadership will take to increase the likelihood of a successful post COVID-19 corporate recovery.

Many organizations are communicating throughout the pandemic; however, given COVID-19 was unexpected, much of this communications is being developed in real time, without the benefit of a well-articulated strategy and communications protocols that determine roles, actions, stakeholder-specific messages and timing.

Given the severity and ubiquity of COVID-19, these risks are only amplified – and for every company. In today’s media-saturated environment, where misinformation is often perceived as fact, unless your corrective actions are well planned, executed and communicated, you risk permanent damage to your corporate reputation and equity value.

Following are observations on how crisis management teams should adjust their strategic communications plans in the wake of COVID-19. (Tip: leadership should review its D&O insurance policy to see if crisis communications response services are covered – in many cases, they are.)

Ongoing Scenario Planning
If your existing COVID-19 messaging is focused on short-term updates and temporary policies, it’s time to shift to a longer view which includes outlining a path back to normalcy. What is your plan to weather the remainder of the pandemic, what contingencies may you face, and what permanent changes should you consider implementing? Ask yourself the following:

  • What are my true business imperatives, and through that lens, what policies and procedures need to evolve? For example, several Fortune 500 CEOs have recently expressed desire to end single-meeting air travel for management and executives, to limit employees’ exposure to future pandemics and other global threats. Similarly, companies that require employees to be onsite are adopting new safety measures and/or rotating staff, so that fewer employees are physically together simultaneously.
  • How will your organization adapt its work-from-home policy moving forward? Are there permanent changes you could consider to minimize operational risk and OpEx while increasing employee safety and engagement?
  • Hundreds of school districts across the country have announced closures until the fall semester, and child care resources remained closed. Should you consider a relief benefit for working parents with out-of-school kids? IBM, for example, recently announced its “12-Week Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave” program which gives employees an additional three months of paid leave to deal with extended school closures related to COVID-19.
  • How will you view networking event and industry or investor conferences moving forward? What about major in-person company events and board meetings? How will you alter your event schedule and strategy for the remainder of the year? Next year?
  • Finally, what potential opportunities may arise during a similar future event? With dramatic change comes opportunity, and companies including Airbnb, Dyson, LVMH, Steelcase and others have quickly pivoted from their core businesses to help fight COVID-19, while also keeping their operations humming.

At minimum, for the next several months, your crisis communications team should convene on a bi-weekly basis to review ongoing COVID-19 developments, revised activity timelines and discuss other updates to determine how any new information may further impact your business, employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Share Both Long-Term Goals and Incremental Steps
There is, unfortunately, no playbook for COVID-19, but crisis communications plans will require a measured, incremental and long-term approach. CEOs should communicate a combination of long-term goals and a vision for the future, as well as the specific actions that will be taken over time to bring that vision to life.

Ensure your crisis communications team is aware of all operational steps the company is taking, across divisions/responsibilities, to keep employees and customers safe and maintain business continuity, and look for the right opportunity to unveil your long-term recovery plan to the entire organization.

Don’t neglect to highlight specific steps. For example:

  • Is your organization investing in innovation to help employees work from home more frequently and/or effectively? What is the associated CapEx? How will your train employees on new systems?
  • Did COVID-10 uncover any vulnerabilities in your supply chain? If so, how will you build better supply chain redundancy and resiliency in the future?
  • For companies that have announced recent layoffs and furloughs: how will you change your hiring and HR policies to give employees more confidence in the stability of their jobs moving forward? Is there a potential competitive advantage in doing so?
  • Have you taken other actions to strengthen the business, empower employees, or show leadership in the industry/community?
  • What tangible actions can front-line employees take to help the business recover and better prepare itself for future threats? What must every employee know and believe?
  • How has COVID-19 changed your current capital needs and capital management strategy for the remainder of 2020? For companies with recent drawdowns: how will you improve your leverage ratio, and by when?
  • Even the most modest of business milestones – reaching break-even, for example – can serve as a source of celebration and inspiration. Make sure to share corporate milestones with stakeholders to give them more “reasons to believe” and remain engaged in your response efforts.

Uncertainty is the enemy of confidence, comfort and focus – three qualities that senior leaders need to display and instill in their teams right now.  In the absence of facts, communicate process.  Even straightforward operational updates can add welcome good news to a long-term communications plan.

Expand, Diversity and Customize Your Communication Channel Strategies
You likely use multiple channels to communicate with stakeholders, ranging from shareholder meetings and investor conferences to employee newsletters and consumer-facing social media accounts. Each new COVID-19 update published should have a defined audience, purpose and message, and you should determine ahead of time what channel(s) will most effectively deliver the particular message.

In these times of physical distancing, you may need to define or adapt communications channels that have not been used before – e.g., what does your next all-hands meeting look like? Same as before? Think through specific potential implications for each channel, including how each stakeholder group prefers to interact within the channel.

A company’s employees are a tremendously potent resource when it comes to recovery from any crisis. While overlooked as a channel at times, your employee base is simultaneously hungry for information (given they are likely concerned about their jobs) and eager to help (which can back-fire without the proper guidance). Employees are your front-line brand ambassadors, and in addition to helping disseminate and reinforce your key messages, they can serve as additional eyes and ears as the situation continues to evolve.

Promote Active Dialogue
To quell industry and employee rumors and ongoing uncertainty, two-way dialogue with your most important stakeholder groups is critical. Operational interruptions as the result of tough stakeholder questions and/or other distractions can be minimized via strategic internal communications. Similarly, a well-planned Board of Directors meeting can significantly alleviate Directors’ concerns while instilling confidence and trust in the future.

Every leader has blind spots – it’s impossible to know every aspect of every role at your company – and active listening can help you course-correct and mitigate additional impact.

Means by which to actively listen range from surveys and focus groups to one-on-one conversations. Determine what your stakeholders think about your recovery plan and identify and address their top questions and concerns.

Sample questions:

  • What are your overall feelings on the impact of COVID-19 on our business and the company’s response efforts to date? What could we be doing better?
  • Have the company’s COVID-19 communications been informative and effective?
  • What are you seeing in terms of corporate “best practices”? Which organizations are leading the way with their COVID-19 response efforts, and what innovations are they developing/leveraging?
  • How can our company and team can better serve you during periods of uncertainty?
  • Do you feel you have access to adequate mental healthcare?

The Correct Tone for Crisis Response
Crisis response is all about addressing the issues, acknowledging the facts, showing empathy for those affected, and providing transparency into what’s being done to recover and prevent similar incidents from happening again. As such, leadership must be aware of, and guide, tone-of-voice across all communications during times of crisis, even communications made on the company’s social media platforms, where interactions are typically more playful and friendly. Remember that the tone of some crisis response messages may sound “off-brand,” because it’s off-brand for the crisis to have occurred in the first place.

Media Relations
As of this writing, COVID-19 continues to dominate national and local headlines across media of all types. Because the pandemic has proven to eclipse every other headline, it’s safe to anticipate that COVID-19 will remain a topic of reporter inquiry for quite some time.  Organizations with a clear strategic vision and willingness to remain transparent will be best positioned for the remainder of the pandemic and for long-term recovery. The smartest organizations will leverage the media to communicate their vision.

Interaction with the media will ultimately determine how the crisis is covered and have a major impact, positively or negatively, on your brand. There are techniques and tactics for working with media that will enhance positive coverage and help to preserve corporate reputation.  Most important is providing facts to reporters as quickly as possible is the best way to ensure an open and beneficial long-term relationship.

An organization is best served when it relies on designated spokespeople to communicate with the media during a crisis. This builds relationships with journalists and ensures that the company is communicating a clear and consistent message, while also ensuring that inquiries are answered promptly and helping to drive your desired narrative. Choose your COVID-19 spokespeople and stick with them.

The time to plan your long-term COVID-19 communication strategies is now. While the duration of the crisis is unknown, it’s obvious the pandemic and its impacts are not disappearing anytime soon. Invest a few days of strategic communications planning now, and you can position your company as one leading the way in terms of COVID-19 recovery.

Should your organization help developing a comprehensive long-term plan, ICR can help. Just reach out to have a deeper conversation.