Covid-19 is now viral - in every sense of the word. New Zealand announced its first confirmed case today, with officials stressing that it was always a case 'of not if, but when'.
Most country outbreaks are, for the time being at least, as contained as they can be but we all know how easy it is to catch a cold and, as Covid-19 is the same family as the 'common cold' I have no doubt that in the coming weeks we will all be aware of someone with the illness (if not ourselves).
Miscommunication has been rife for weeks now and has resulted in some very nasty racist attacks and displays of xenophobia. Social media is pumped up with rumour and counter-rumour and economic fall-out is beginning to occur.
So what role for practitioners in all of this? Quite a significant one of course but perhaps one of the most valuable and potentially overlooked roles in this type of situation is that of the internal communication professional.
Organisations of all types will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Inevitably supply chains will be disrupted and customers numbers will diminish but the greatest challenge will be staying in business or continuing to provide service as staff either fall ill, self-isolate or have to remain home as carers. Internal communicators should have already prepared their crisis plan in conjunction with their HR and leadership teams and have a programme underway - if not, now is the hour.
Clear, factual and consistent communication will help organisations maintain some form of business continuity. Internal communications professionals need to help their colleagues understand how everyone will work together to manage staff shortages, remote working, public-facing service delivery, wellness and hygiene as well as situation updates as case numbers rise and more people become unwell.
However, where the real value will be evident is in those workplaces where internal communicators have been active already, successfully building strong internal relationships in workplaces that give priority to the employee experience. In those instances, the crisis communication plan will be particularly effective because the fundamentals of trust, commitment and loyalty between the organisation and its employees will already be in place.
Hopefully, the organisations out there who prioritise and value their employee relationships outnumber those that don't - and those are the workplaces and organisations where the value of internal communications will be visible to all.
Be careful out there - there's a smog of misinformation that's fuelling some ghastly symptoms. China is caught up in an outbreak of a new virus and the symptoms being displayed elsewhere in the world are abhorrent. There's a rise in racist attacks, social media is alight with spurious claim and counter claim and 'official channels' are leaving an information vacuum that shortens the incubation period for conspiracy theorists and online trolls.
The main source of information should be the World Health Organisation but their briefings fluctuate from suggesting the situation is dire to suggesting all is contained. Their video on the virus wasn't terribly helpful and, to be fair, I found it to be a poor explanation of the situation that raised more questions than answers - plus it was a very patronising use of a very un-diverse Doodly-esq type video platform. Given the resources available at WHO, I really think they could have done better and should do better.
A global pandemic has been in the top five risks on the Global Risk Index for a number of years now and we've seen SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks since 2000 - so why has the communication around this viral outbreak stalled in such an amateurish way? Leaving questions unanswered creates worry and fear - emotions that are happily pounced on by those who want to further their own xenophobic agenda. WHO states this is a 'novel coronavirus', so it is new, it is relatively early days in the cycle - although the toll for Chinese people has been both considerable and deadly - and they are still piecing together information. All understandable challenges but in communicating the situation, tone should have been addressed as well as content. Tone that demonstrates some compassion for those suffering from the virus. Tone that allays the fears of those who think they might contract the virus and tone that affords some authority to those speaking about the virus.
During our risk and reputation training sessions this month we've tracked the 'spread of information' connected to Novel Coronavirus 2019 and one thing all the workshop participants agreed on was the need to urgently look at their own crisis and risk communication plans.
The other active discussions concerned the societal responsibility of all communicators to allay fears and minimise the chance (risk) of racist attacks. Staying informed, keeping up-to-date with the changing situation so we can advise and communicate risks and issues - all absolutely part of our jobs which, if the last month is anything to go by, are going to get more challenging than ever.
And if you need some help with your risk, reputation and issues management - contact us today and be prepared.
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.