COVID-19: When a Health Crisis Becomes a Communications Crisis

The stock market has plummeted, stores and schools are closing, even toilet paper is hard to find. If you turn on any news channel or scroll through your social media, you’ll see all the attention turned to COVID-19, otherwise known as the novel coronavirus. With the number of new cases on the rise, along with the death toll, the fear is understandable. What I don’t understand is the way all of this has been handled or, more accurately, the way it’s been mishandled. It’s led to discrimination against Asians, a shortage of needed medical supplies, and problems making sure people get tested. What we’re missing here is obvious: clear and reliable information, trustworthy sources, and proper planning that lets us know what business leaders should be doing and what to expect.


There are a lot of unknowns about the virus, including incubation, the number of ways it’s transmitted, and measures we can take to prevent the spread, but that’s no excuse for a complete lack of crisis communications. It makes a dangerous situation even more treacherous and it’s happening in the very highest forms of government. The people we look to for leadership in our businesses, families, organizations, and schools aren’t leading.


In 2018, Bill Gates had a warning about pandemics, urging preparation for an outbreak be handled with the same level of seriousness as preparing for war. “This preparation includes staging simulations, war games, and preparedness exercises so that we can better understand how diseases will spread and how to deal with responses such as quarantine and communications to minimize panic,” he said. I wish our government had taken his advice.


It is becoming very clear who has and has not prioritized contingency planning and the dissemination of information. The biggest offender is our federal government. As a communications professional with decades of experience developing crisis strategies and communications plans, I’m frustrated. As a citizen, a wife, and a mother, I’m appalled. The trickle-down effect is impacting the business community and far too many companies are realizing too late they don’t have proper contingency plans in place. So what should business leaders do now?


Recognize the issue at hand as soon as possible

Ignoring a problem isn’t going to make it go away. In fact, by not addressing the issue, it allows misinformation to spread. Take control of your messaging from the start and don’t leave people guessing.


Identify one key spokesperson and who’s going to support that person

Select one lead to ensure consistency in messaging. That person doesn’t have to be the CEO but the CEO needs to be involved and stand in solidarity. Make sure your spokesperson is trusted, able to respond immediately, and well-spoken. Ideally, that person should go through some sort of media and speaker training. This can be an internal leader, a PR agency, or the head of communications. Make sure staff have been appointed to them who understand the protocol, can help field and answer questions, and share information.


Identify and segment stakeholders

A crisis can impact everyone involved in your company, especially with the outbreak of a deadly pandemic. Each group needs to be addressed separately, with appropriate messaging, communicated through the most accessible and readily available channels.


Anticipate possible outcomes

Creating multiple scenarios on how this may play out doesn’t make you a pessimist, it makes you responsible. Classify from least catastrophic to most and identify likelihood, creating a separate plan for each.


Identify chains of escalation

As things shift and scale, know who needs to get involved at various stages and what their responsibilities will be in both handling the crisis and communicating needed information.


Prioritize people before profits

It shouldn’t even have to be said, but when you put your financial well-being before the safety of others you will ultimately lose in the end, whether that’s employees, investors, customers, or public trust. Put people in harm's way and you could be facing a legal and PR nightmare, and the ultimate demise of your business.


Create a post-crisis review and improvements

When the threat of COVID-19 ends, your crisis communications work does not. That’s when it’s time to assess the effectiveness of your plan and work with a professional to determine where improvements can be made. Communicate all new standards and protocols and revisit regularly.


Don’t handle anything lightly

Don’t just explain what you’re doing, explain why you’re doing it, with an eye towards over-communicating rather than under-communications. Address rumors without speculating and do not make things up when you don’t know the answer. Use common sense and demonstrate empathy. Do NOT seek to profit from a misfortune but attempt to help instead.


You don’t have all the answers, but you do need to communicate what you’re doing to find them. Tell your people and your customers you’re working to protect them. Reverend H. K. Williams said it best: “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” In a time of fear, failure to communicate isn’t an option.

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