Proper communications during a crisis are vital

Farah Al Alami
Farah Al Alami

By Farah Al Alami

Published: Mon 27 Jul 2020, 3:09 PM

Last updated: Tue 28 Jul 2020, 4:52 PM

It hurts us all to be witnessing the pandemic of Covid-19 worldwide; which has taught us so much about ourselves and our societies.
Without going into the virus or its effect on the economy or on the public mental health, I wanted to discuss a vital pillar that helps bring all information together and have it communicated to the world.
From educational information, to statistics, virus updates, economic updates and beyond, I wanted to first pay tribute to all those communications professionals worldwide who have communicated in a timely manner with their relevant target audiences. Hats off to the efforts put in the UAE by the government and health authorities to fight Covid-19 while giving the community at large peace of mind.
Communications is of course an important component, if not one of the top most vital pillars, in all organisations during such a crisis. But there's nothing more challenging than crisis communications.
Let's discuss here some scenarios, where things could go wrong without proper communications:
1. Almost all organisations have been affected in one way or another by this pandemic. Retail shops, hotels, restaurants and others have been closed down, and employees have been made redundant as the pandemic drags on and other companies downsize. Others must work remotely. Others have had their revenues slashed and required employees to take mandatory annual leaves, followed by unpaid leave. Some companies had to decrease salaries for a specific period. Also, employees had to implement all precautionary measures that were introduced in offices to keep staff safe and healthy.
Whenever there's a major change that affects employees, communicators need to put in place a comprehensive internal communications plan that includes the support of and input from HR, operations, legal, and the CEO. If there's any flaw in the plan and messaging, the results will be more negative and will take longer to fix. Employees may even escalate the situation legally if there's no clear communication as to why these changes are being put in place.
2. Employees should be updated on the situation, and how the company will continue. This is doubly true for employees who are impacted financially. No matter the outcome of the planned action - be it negative or positive - the CEO with the support communications and leadership should update employees on the what and the why, and use a vision to ensure that employees see there is an end goal in sight. This will keep staff motivated and engaged.
3. Crisis committees are essential in all organisations in this situation. These committees usually involve the C-Suite, and include the CEO, COO, CHRO, CFO, CCO, . as well as technical staff as required by your industry (this would include physicians, nurses and technicians in the healthcare space). The PR/communications person/team in charge needs to plan for a wide variety of scenarios, such as if an employee has tested positive, or a positive-testing customer has been in contact with one of the employees. The messaging needs to be crafted sensitively and transparently by the PR/communications expert in charge. Bear in mind that messaging might be shared on social media, and your news will reach hundreds, if not thousands of people in the community and beyond. You should be very careful with what you communicate, how you communicate and on which channels you communicate.
4. Organisations could utilise such situations positively through societal initiatives, by helping communities or affected individuals. They could support educating the public and sending positive messaging encouraging the community to stay at home, to support each other and abide with the rules and regulations. Such initiatives are of value, and responsible organizations will make the most of the situation to support others. PR would amplify these positive initiatives, if communicated responsibly. People are educated and smart enough to differentiate between those with good intentions and those who are exploiting the situation to make more money. During this period of time, organizations cannot think just about commercial issues - they have to understand how they can help others, at least until the crisis is over.
5. Journalists will approach organisations for information, and they'll need it quickly. What statements or press releases do you have on hand? Have they been developed by people who have the full picture (PR/communications), and been checked by the organization's crisis committee?
6. Your customers should be regularly updated, whether to inform that safety measures have been applied for their safety and your employees safety, or that new services have been launched or opening times have changed, or new products brought in, or even if you are closing down or stopping specific services. You need your communications team to be on top of everything and ready to push out information in a timely manner. With lack of communications, you may loose customers or have more dissatisfied customers.
The examples given above are relevant to most organisations, regardless of their sector. It also applies to healthcare facilities who play an essential role in the community. 
What I discussed here might be basic - these insights won't be new to many of you - but, unfortunately, some organizations aren't following the playbook, and they tend to forget the role that communications should play in general and specifically also in a crisis until they themselves make an error. 
This reminds me of an organisation I read about that sent out an internal announcement with inaccurate information and statistics related to the pandemic which was then circulated publicly on social media, and has definitely put the organisation in an unideal situation. Two scenarios for that, either the PR in charge made a huge mistake to proceed with it or the PR in charge was not even involved - and I would actually expect the latter. 
On another note, it's disappointing to see organisations cutting down on their communication departments in the first round of cuts. Good communications is fundamental in a crisis, and smart leaders will invest more in their communications capabilities to ensure that everyone is aware of what is happening and what they need to do.
My last piece of advice is this. Communicate what you need to, and not simply to be heard. Don't communicate just because you feel as if your brand needs exposure. The harm caused by over communicating may be greater than the benefits.
Stay home, stay safe. And communicate well. 
- Farah Al Alami is the CCO at UEMedical Group and a board member of the MEPRA. Views expressed are her own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.

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