What Can Coronavirus Teach us About Communications?

Managing Director of The Reputation People, Heather Astbury, offers some tips on how to communicate in a crisis.

We find ourselves in a situation that very few of us could have imagined even just a few short weeks ago. At a time like this communication becomes increasingly important, even as face to face interaction becomes more impossible.

Governments are asking a lot of their populations right now and the only way people will cooperate fully is if they trust the advice they are being given and the measures they are being asked to take. Accurate, timely, consistent and clear communication is what will ensure governments have the trust of their populations that they need.

Although some methods of communication may need to change, the basic rules remain the same. These are:

  1. Be clear about your message
  2. Be consistent
  3. Be accurate and transparent
  4. Give as much information as you can
  5. Communicate quickly
  6. Think about your audience

We’ve already seen some examples during the coronavirus crisis that illustrate why this is important. When the UK government says people have to stay away from pubs, restaurants, cinemas or other places where large groups of people gather together, but insists these businesses can stay open, the result is confusion. Why would such places remain open if no-one can go to them? This lack of clear communication is why people are not heeding the message to stay at home to the extent the government wants them to.

Donald Trump’s reputation for breaking the rules of good communication has been enhanced during coronavirus. From saying the US would soon have no cases two weeks before there were more than 2,200 people diagnosed and 49 deaths, publicly contradicting his top health official and refusing to take responsibility for delays in testing, Donald Trump has created widespread anxiety in the US and a lack of trust in what people are being told. At a time when the US government needs the trust of its people – especially if they are going to have to ask people to behave in ways that are difficult, uncomfortable or anxiety-causing – this legacy of poor communication could literally be a life or death matter.

These are rules that apply to every business.

We may have to be physically removed from our co-workers, customers, partners and suppliers, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop communicating. In fact, we need to be communicating more.

Every business, large and small, has a number of stakeholders to consider. From staff to customers, suppliers to legislators, we need to keep in touch with the people we rely on to operate our businesses. After all, we want to ensure our businesses survive this crisis. As our ways of working are changing, we need to make changes to how we communicate too.

For many businesses, employees will be working from home, potentially for the first time. This means popular methods of sharing information around a company, such as group or team huddles, are currently not an option. But it is increasingly important with a disparate workforce to communicate well to keep them engaged, ensure they remain connected to their co-workers and continue to have the ability to conduct their work.

Customers need to be kept up to date with what the business is doing, or they may go elsewhere to buy what they need. Are you still open; are there changes to your delivery policies or times; what are you doing to keep your people safe? These, and many more, are questions your customers will want answers to.

Fortunately, we live in an era when it is easier to communicate without being face to face than ever before. There are so many online tools available and this may be the push some businesses need to fully explore these options. They may find ways of communicating that are in the long run cheaper and more effective than the methods they used previously. With everyone having access to smartphones, WhatsApp, Slack, Microsoft Teams and Facebook Groups are already familiar to many. Each of these have mobile apps and each offer the ability to set up groups for text or video chats, which makes communication easy regardless of where people are.

There is an opportunity in any crisis – the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one for threat and one for opportunity. If companies use this opportunity to improve the way they communicate then businesses will be stronger in the future and at least something good will have come out of this crisis.

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