Oh, Mary

Communications in Our Distant Age

March 13, 2020
Roger van Oosten

This is the second Oh, Mary post regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. Click to read Going Viral.

Here’s what we know. Despite widespread confusion, rising anxiety, attempts to misrepresent and outright lie about the severity of the outbreak, Covid-19, the coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, continues to spread across the globe. 

While there is little consensus regarding various aspects of the virus, political, medical, and scientific authorities agree that the current outbreak will get worse from this point forward. There is no consensus on how long this virus will linger, or if it will continue to evolve into a recurring flare-up year after year. 

Since the virus is new to science, strategies to limit the danger to humans are few. The suggestions to protect oneself against disease have been around for centuries. Wash your hands, wash frequently used surfaces, and distance yourself from your fellow humans. If you become ill, seek medical advice and isolate yourself from other people. 

That’s the human side. But what about businesses? Is there anything businesses can do to not only avoid negative effects of the disease, but rather, actually be part of the solution to ending the crisis? The answer is ‘yes.’ And internal and external communications are the key. 

It’s important to start with acceptance. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has said that the virus will cause significant disruption for a significant amount of time. Covid-19 has already had serious impacts on commerce and this will continue. Denial is not an option. It’s time to plan a response. 

This crisis came on fast, and a slow federal response has left the private sector to find its own way. Smart companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are making the right choices and providing clear communications about those actions that helps give other companies the confidence to take the same actions. The private sector is leading the way in responding to the viral threat. 

Follow their lead. First, get a communications plan in place. Waste no time in this. Have responses ready if a worker tests positive. Make sure you have a set of actions ready if such an event happens. Actions would include clear statements about what you as company leaders will do. 

Open up a dialogue with other business leaders and public health authorities. In the case of a positive test, for example, it gives clear confidence to employees, investors, and partners to say that you are following the guidance of health authorities. 

If the work of your company can be done by employees from their homes, make that change quickly and decisively. Internally, make the announcement with communications to every employee. Emphasize that employee health is a paramount concern. Remember, any email will be forwarded by employees to outside individuals, possibly the media. So, don’t just send out a notice. Stop and consider composing a company statement that reflects company values and concern. The days when companies did good in anonymity are long gone. If you make good choices, tell people about it. 

There is conflicting data about productivity when employees work remotely. Enforce productivity with an effective plan of action and frequent communication. Start each day with a call between managers and employees. Have a task list for the day. Have at least two calls during the day to check progress. Have an end of day review of action items. Repeat daily. Use online task tools to chart progress. Use visual communication tools like Zoom or Facetime.  

Now, consider your external communications. While it’s wise to consider dropping some activities that might be insensitive in a crisis, and cancelling events is a given, there are some proactive communications actions you can take. 

If your company, for example, can provide business, health, or other data that will help the media tell the story of the pandemic, then reach out to the media, hat in hand, to offer insights. If your company can help consumers pass time during social distancing, or help them manage finances or transactions, or help with health aspects of the pandemic, then you have a responsibility to help the media calm fears, alert people to dangers, and improve their lives while isolated and distant. To be clear, you are looking to help. If you adopt that mentality, then you are on solid communications ground. 

At some point, this pandemic will recede or reach an end, though a true end to it will only come from an effective vaccine. When the nation and world recover, position your company as a help in the return to normal. It’s easy to socially distance yourself in a time of crisis. It’s much harder to reconnect with your fellow man or woman when the time comes to celebrate life again. If your company has products or services that help with a return to normal, start making plans now to be ready. The help will be needed. 

Covid-19 will change the human race. There is no use denying it. Prepare yourself to engage with the crisis and be part of the solution to ending it. Business has been at the forefront of this pandemic. It was the NBA that seized the spotlight by foregoing billions of dollars in the name of public health. I suspect it will be business that lifts us back up. Be prepared to be a part of that effort. 

Louis Pasteur, the brilliant 19th century biologist and chemist once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Pasteur developed vaccines to rabies and anthrax.