How to communicate in turbulent times

By Frans Van Cauwelaert, Account Director, Corporate & Public Affairs Practice at Wilson Hartnell

We are currently in the midst of the most disruptive global crisis seen in decades.  There is little doubt that the aftermath of Covid-19 will have a dramatic impact on the way our societies, political systems and economies work in future.  It will be the single most important catalyst in recent history for changing consumer behaviour and attitudes.  This will be a defining moment for businesses and brands. How they react and what they do now will not only impact on short-term survival, but more importantly, the long-term brand health and vitality that is critical to future long-term growth.

Effective communications underpinned by a robust strategy has never been more important, as has already been demonstrated by the Coronavirus messaging, we have been receiving on a daily basis from the Government and Healthcare authorities. Just as in fighting the spread of Covid-19, clear and relevant communications will be key to how businesses deal with this outbreak. Waiting to respond until something has happened is not an option. 

A five-step plan to effective communication during Covid-19 crisis

At Wilson Hartnell, we manage communications during a crisis with the following five steps in mind.  

These steps, which we call DRIVE, represent the actions needed at each phase of the process. Specifically, they refer to Determine (audience), Refine (messaging), Inform (constituencies), Values (focus) and Evaluate (impact). We are recommending that we, as a communications community, DRIVE the communications instead of letting the issue define how we respond.

Here’s what we recommend at each step of the process. This approach reflects much of what we are doing for clients now, while reflecting the unique circumstances currently facing every business and brand.

Step one: DETERMINE who needs to know what

As people scramble to make sense of the world around them, determining who needs to know what is so often lost, despite it often being common sense. Map the communications needs of all your stakeholders and put a plan in place to reach out to them. The two primary audiences every organisation should reach out to are its employees and customers.

Regularly communicating with staff and customers through an upheaval can put them at ease, while also ensuring that critical business needs are still addressed. This is where having a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is paramount. Many companies believe that they will never use these plans and if they do, they will be used sparingly, however businesses are now learning that robust Business Continuity Plans are like having a good insurance policy.

Effective BCPs do a few things:

Use technology – Review and, if necessary, recalibrate your technology platform to manage day-to-day communications. Assign people/teams to manage your internal or external platforms, whichever best allows your company to consistently and clearly communicate with staff and customers. Most larger organisations will already have this in hand, but smaller and medium-sized firms will need to prioritise this aspect of their business.

Demonstrate your value proposition to your staff and customers – There is no better time than a critical issue to “show not tell” how important your staff are to your organisation as you keep them, and your customers informed of all critical developments as events unfold during this crisis.

Both staff and customers will judge the company and management on the steps you take to ensure their safety. We have witnessed some companies going the extra mile by providing additional reassurance to staff by offering emotional support hotlines, and even providing physician consultancy over the phone.

Include the whole organisation and amend as necessary – Throughout the last few weeks, many companies have been tweaking their BCPs, making sure teams are aligned. We have found the best BCPs have an identified leader who coordinates the company’s response and includes HR, communications, marketing, sales, finance, legal and technology in the decision making. This person is not necessarily the CEO but is closely linked to the CEO and keeps fully abreast of the company’s response to staff and customer requirements as well as the company’s ongoing business needs.

Technology is excellent when interacting with customers too. Whether it’s to arrange non-contact meetings or to address customer concerns from afar rather than up close, it helps knowing which technology can be best deployed in a given situation. In times of crisis, being present with your customers is crucial. It’s your chance to show them that you truly care about them and are operating in the same reality as they are. You’re not isolated, caring only about profit while they worry about their safety and the world around them. Now is the time to adapt, be agile and introduce innovative solutions to support the needs of your customers and the wider community where possible.

Government is another important stakeholder. We have had many clients – both domestic and international – demonstrate their citizenship through offers of monetary, product, and even personnel support. These moves go a long way towards showing that a company or brand takes its role in larger society seriously.

Step two: REFINE your messaging

Once you know who you need to communicate with and what the desired outcomes are, your focus can shift to messaging. Ideally, you want to communicate your actions while avoiding any controversial or political hurdles. In a situation such as Covid-19, you don’t want to fuel panic, but you do want to take the necessary actions to be prudent and to act in accordance with best government advice.

It is the role of the communicator to understand the sensitivities around communicating what is needed, necessary, relevant and responsible, and to manage all risks involved in external communications. You should use common sense when pitching non-coronavirus related news to the media and appreciate more than ever their specific content needs at this moment in time.

Step three: INFORM your constituencies

Nothing builds trust throughout an issue or crisis better than a steady flow of responsible information that keeps everyone involved. Companies need to stay close to all aspects of the response to a crisis, and make sure they are relaying the most recent and relevant information to all their stakeholders based on trusted and factual sources such as the World Health Organisation, HSE and To stay in front of the many questions and concerns that stakeholders will have, it’s important to communicate clearly and employ a cadenced approach to providing updates.

We have been helping our clients with this as they stay close to all aspects of the response taking place in Ireland and elsewhere, as well as documenting what other companies are doing about it and seeking a best practice approach. This is helping leadership teams make decisions on what is specifically necessary and relevant for their companies.

Step four: focus on your VALUES

None of us welcomes a crisis. But there is no better time to demonstrate what you stand for as a company. What are the values that define you? And if those values don’t shine through at this time, are they really indicative of how your company operates and its purpose in the world? Crises can represent a “show not tell” moment for your corporate reputation. We have seen companies, large and small and from every sector, step up to the plate to take key initiatives during this crisis, particularly in relation to sourcing personal protection equipment for our hard-pressed medical and care workers and providing financial packages to assist people and companies in difficulty during this crisis.

Step five: EVALUATE and evolve throughout the process

Communicating during issues and crises is a fluid process. The final step is to evaluate how you are doing through feedback surveys, engagement reviews and responses. Be guided by this one critical question: “Have the steps you have taken demonstrably improved the experience of this crisis for your staff and customers and is there more you can do?”

If the answer is anything but yes, that doesn’t mean that everything you’ve done up until now has been wrong or totally useless. It just requires taking a holistic look at the previous steps and iterating or going back to make sure you have developed the right communications and established the correct channels to communicate them, and moreover, that they have been guided by the true values of the organisation. Continue to listen to your customers and the market in general and ‘evolve’ your offering to continue to deliver a valued service or product offering.

Following these steps will not only help your organisation manage and adapt during the crisis, it will also help establish it as proactively DRIVING the agenda so that your business is primed to continue to matter in both the medium-term recovery phase and right into the ‘new normal’ longer term phase.

The crisis will pass, and there will be an After

Earlier this week, EY Ireland rightly pointed out that estimating the potential impact of the pandemic is extremely difficult due to the uncertainty surrounding the length of the crisis.  However, it is projecting GDP to contract by 7% in base scenario where extreme disruption ends by the end of May.

While many companies and organisations are acutely focused on their plans for the here and now, and the contributions they can make to help during the current COVID-19 situation, we will all have to muster up even greater energy and focus for the recovery phase. To cater for these two-time horizons and ensure that companies plan now for recovery, it useful to think about splitting resource; one team that deals with the current situation and one that can focus firmly on the post COVID-19 phase.

The decisions and actions that we take now will play a significant role in the recovery phase. It is important to remember that we are not powerless. It is true that there are things that we need to accept about our current reality, which is why we need to stay focused on the elements that are within our control and that we can positively influence.

The supportive, selfless mindset that has led to some fantastic partnerships and collaborations within and between businesses and organisations of all types and across sectors including supporting the Government efforts, will be the very progressive, growth mindsets that we will need to reboot our economy in the post Covid-19 world.