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PUBLICATION

Insights for Communications Leaders

As the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis continues, communications leaders face the expanding challenge of supporting staff safety, company reputation, and operational viability. They do their jobs under the critical gaze of stakeholders, the risk of missteps compounded by social media activism. To help communications leaders during this trying time, we have synthesized insights from ongoing conversations with our internal experts and member network.

We hope these ideas help as you formulate, implement, and manage your crisis response.1

Key “Must Dos” and “Get Rights”

  • Stay grounded in the company’s values. In times of clear threat, base your planning within the company’s longstanding framework of values. Refer to your company’s vision, mission, and values statement. Use it to substantiate the principles that guide your words and actions, and those of leaders, staff, and associates. Articulate the principles, position, and priorities of the company through the lens of those values as the foundation for all actions. The tone of all communication should?reflect the company's values as well as its established style.

  • Update your stakeholder inventory. Don’t risk neglecting a key stakeholder group. Walk through your stakeholders one by one: employees at every level, suppliers and customers, media, government at all levels, investors and shareholders. It is the company’s responsibility to provide needed assurances and help reduce anxiety while ensuring that stakeholders are not swayed by inaccurate or spurious information.

  • Activate a cross-functional crisis team. Because the Coronavirus crisis affects the entire business, all functions should have a voice in planning and coordinating responses. Some initial tasks for the team may include:

    • Quick impact audits A daily cross-check of information to ensure that the organization’s facts on hand are current and accurate. Focus on the number of staff members and staff family members who are sick or have died, the status of customer and supply chain disruptions and their impact, and infrastructure disruptions and their impact.
    • Scenario planning to project hypothetical trajectories of the outbreak and plausible, possible, and likely business impacts over the mid- and long-term so that communications teams can develop corresponding messaging strategies.
  • Establish a centralized crisis communications team. A high-functioning communications hub is the best way to ensure that the company can stay engaged with its numerous stakeholders and media channels. Key functions of the crisis communications team include:

    • Social media monitoring and policy updates where anyone connected with the company can contribute content.
    • Reputational risk assessment through monitoring news and stakeholder feedback.
    • Stakeholder engagement to address and counteract the effects of scandals, inaccurate reports, and other communications challenges.
    • Consistent and regular communication, its frequency determined by the team, and assuming a sustained crisis narrative in the 24/7 news cycle.
  • Mobilize cross industry resources if you can. Coordinated actions carried out across sectors and industries are vastly more effective than individual company actions. If you are in a position of leadership in an industry or industry association, convene likeminded peers to develop and launch harmonized, high-impact initiatives.

  • Carefully deploy tactical CSR activities. Use past and ongoing CSR initiatives as a foundation for planning new, tactical CSR activities that contribute to crisis relief. For example, companies may donate to victims or their supporting agencies in-kind or in-cash in regions or fields where the company operates, directing resources to support family care, and donating and/or operating company services and equipment that assist in crisis relief. Staff may be invited to help define programs, increasing innovation and building engagement. Industry-wide initiatives have been especially powerful.

    • The Bank of China Hong Kong announced that it will allow homeowners six to12 months of relief on mortgage principal payments.
    • The Giorgio Armani group is donating $1.43 million dollars to combat the rapid virus spread in Italy, with funds being split between three Milan-based hospitals and Rome’s Spallanzani hospital, in addition to the Civil Protection Agency, which helps manage emergency events.
    • Google announced it will allow free access to the “advanced” features of Hangouts Meet to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers through July.
  • Mobilize and project the crisis stewardship of your top leaders. Responses to crises of this magnitude need to be led from the top. Public (or de facto) leadership by legal, finance, and HR heads is important, but will not likely resonate with sufficient amplitude in response to the overarching question, “What can we do to help?” Your goal should be to do the right thing on the basis of conscience and public purpose, not profile or profit.

  • Be prepared to communicate empathy for a prolonged period of time. Accept that there will be long-term psychological impacts on your people, organization, and customers. Externally, messaging needs to avoid a “recovery” tone until recovery is well underway. Internally, communications channels should promote resources such as childcare, counselling, and aids to self-help.

  • Enable informal staff support groups and crisis communities. Do not let employees feel ignored or isolated in this time of great difficulty. Empower them to set up mutual support initiatives on digital platforms. Staff support teams, distinct and separate from the HR function, can aid colleagues, even if only to lend moral support. Psychological counseling, either in house or third party, is another option.

  • Seek out and support hardship cases. To an appropriate extent, maintain robust awareness of the hardships being faced by your people, their families, and those of all your partners, including suppliers and providers of critical services and infrastructure. Ask what your company and your industry can do to help. Work closely with HR, finance, logistics and other key departments to identify and communicate meaningful support measures

  • Keep looking ahead; continually brainstorm to anticipate problem areas. Be prepared for lingering tensions in the workplace: for example, anxiety over personal health stress over other personal and corporate financial issues; anti-Asian and political and geographic prejudice; and the difficulty of reintegrating emotionally weakened teams as the crisis fades.

Communicating in a Crisis

This is clearly a critical time for communications executives. The most adept communications leaders will succeed in upholding the long arc of corporate reputation while addressing the daily, sometimes life-threatening adversities posed by the crisis.

  • Keep your eye on the ball.  As the primary source of messaging that affects company reputation and conveys company direction, the crisis communication team is ideally “the calm eye of the storm.”

    • Keep abreast of and aligned with government directives. Stay current on official sources of intelligence and trusted private sources. As needed, synthesize the tsunami of information into prioritized short lists that staff can quickly digest and act on.
    • Be vigilant about source verification. The credibility of third-party sources quoted in communications must be rigorously checked for accuracy.
    • Don’t be tone deaf. Conveying a calm, empathetic, and supportive tone is key. Avoid patronizing or opportunistic language. Employ double and triple “sets of eyes” to review communications to avoid accidental insensitivity.
    • Be egalitarian; show no bias. No level of the company, from factory floor to C-Suite, should be ignored in the communications program. Treat every cohort as comparably as possible.

We hope that these insights help you navigate the complexities of this fast-moving situation. For coronavirus guidance for Finance Management Leaders, click here. To listen to our series of podcasts on implications of the coronavirus outbreak, click here. Please do not hesitate to reach out to our expert team for a quick chat or meeting. We’re here to help.

 
 

Note: This piece is adapted from a previously posted article by The Conference Board China Center.



1  This list is not arranged in any order of priority.

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Thought leaders who provide trusted insights for navigating companies and the economy though COVID-19.

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Bart van Ark

Executive Vice President & Global Chief Economist; Program Director, CFO: Fortune 250 Council

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Lynn Franco

Director, Economic Indicators and Surveys

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Ataman Ozyildirim, PhD

Director, Economic Research, and Global Research Chair

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Matteo Tonello

Managing Director, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)

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Gad Levanon, PhD

Vice President, Labor Markets

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David Hoffman

Senior Vice President Asia and Managing Director of the China Center for Economics & Business

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Rebecca L. Ray, PhD

Executive Vice President, Human Capital

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Anke Schrader

Senior Researcher

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Amy Lui Abel, PhD

Vice President, Human Capital Research

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Thomas Singer

Principal Researcher

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Dr. Uwe G. Schulte

Leader, Global Sustainability Centre and Program Director

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Paul Washington

Executive Director, ESG Center

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Ilaria Maselli

Senior Economist

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Amanda Popiela

Researcher, Human Capital

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Elizabeth Crofoot

Senior Economist, Labor Markets

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John Forsyth

Leader of the Consumer Dynamics Institute

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Cindy Cisneros

Vice President of Education Programs

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Steve Odland

President and CEO

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Jeff Hoffman

Institute Leader, Corporate Citizenship & Philanthropy, ESG Center

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Joseph J. Minarik

Senior Vice President and Director of Research

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Erik Lundh

Senior Economist

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Robin Erickson, PhD

Principal Researcher

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JP Kuehlwein

Marketing Institute Leader

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Denise Dahlhoff, PhD

Senior Researcher, Consumer Research

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Laura Sabattini, Ph.D.

Principal Researcher, Human Capital

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Robert Schwarz

Senior Researcher, ESG Center

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Chiqui Cartagena

Chief Marketing Officer & Center Leader, Marketing & Communications

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Dr. Mahdy Al Jazzaf

Executive Director

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Devin O’Connor

Deputy Director, Economic Research

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