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Are you doing crisis communication right? Here are 9 guiding principles for the COVID-19 pandemic

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covid-19, coronavirus

With now more than 198,000 cases identified, in 165 countries and 7,900 deaths, WHO has classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.

There is virtually no business that is not affected in some way. Whole industries have been brought to a halt, supply chains have been disrupted, and many businesses are making alternative arrangements around staffing, operations, reduced opening hours, and isolation where possible.

As the pandemic evolves, organisations are implementing their business continuity responses and crises communications plans issuing communications to employees, customers, suppliers and investors in the form of market updates, changed business circumstances, and altered supply conditions.

However, many are struggling to work out exactly what to do next. With local operating environments changing by the minute, managing a crisis can quickly become insurmountable. As some organisations are finding out, you can’t stay on top of things sending out a group email or two.

The key to communicating to all your stakeholders through a pandemic like this where conditions are evolving quickly is agility – the ability to get the right messages to the right people at the right time via the channels they use.

Technology platforms are key to automating these business-critical communications, enabling real-time two-way interactions with staff, customers and suppliers in different geographies and across multiple delivery channels.

Real-time communications facilitate a coordinated business response from all levels of an organisation that can keep up with changing operating conditions, allowing senior leadership team members to utilise the latest information to make decisions while keeping staff aware of evolving situations and appropriate plans.

And, importantly, they can do all of this at scale.

The principles below have been created to guide organisations in a crisis, enabling them to act swiftly and ensure stakeholders are kept informed with engaging, timely and actionable communications.

1. Engage with all your stakeholders

Think of who is important. Each of your stakeholders – customers, staff, suppliers, regulators, investors, executive team and communities – have different communications requirements and expectations. Put yourself in their shoes – ensure that each communications channel is appropriate for the audience and is carefully communicated in the language of each stakeholder group.

2. Ensure your communications support engagement over multiple channels and platforms

Communicate with your stakeholders in the channels they use. Whether it’s text, email, video or phone, you should know the best way to contact your stakeholders and where they expect to receive communications. This ensures critical communications are not missed.

For urgent communications, SMS accelerates notification speed with the average text message accessed within a minute. Automated voice calls with recorded messages and instructions to mobile and fixed lines generate an even faster response and can be triggered automatically from many communications platforms as certain criteria are met.

3. Deliver consistent, standardised and useful communications

Structure your content and send clear, concise and standardised communications to all stakeholders. This helps avoids confusion, misinformation, and ambiguity which over time can materially reduce trust in a brands reputation.

4. Use a single source of truth

To avoid the rapid spread of unfounded information, use a single source of truth from which your communications are issued. And for external sources use an official government or health authority website to source your information to ensure consistency. Remember you don’t have to create a lot of the information – you need to disseminate it and coordinate your internal actions with it.

5. Ensure communications are timely

Have a clearly defined plan for communicating as certain stages of the pandemic are reached so you can respond promptly to new developments as new insights emerge or events occur to avoid confusion and misinformation, leading to unnecessary anxiety and disruptions to operations. This becomes especially important in crises such as the COVID-19 outbreak, where communications for stakeholders may need to be updated daily or even hourly.

6. Ensure your communications are secure and encrypted

Be prepared to manage receipt of sensitive personal information and ensure you meet your statutory obligations for security and privacy of the data you will aggregate over time. As organisations and governments restrict movements people are being asked by their employers and managed buildings to provide sensitive personal information.

As security of this information is crucial, you need to ensure you are using secure and encrypted communications channels. This will also ensure compliance with statutory obligations for management of privacy data, which may be aggregated over time.

7. Record all interactions for auditing purposes

This is linked to the security point above. As the pandemic evolves, organisations may be asked to provide reports on interactions for contact traceability – and often these reports will be demanded quickly. Ensure your communications platform can produce audits of communications across multiple channels.

8. Be prepared to be flexible and quickly modify content or update

In pandemics, things often don’t work out as planned or conditions evolve suddenly. Content needs to be tailored to the situation with the most up to date and actionable information in a matter of moments. Message templates and placeholders are a great way to prepare for rapid responses to time-critical scenarios.

9. Establish processes to ensure statutory reporting obligations are met

Use a system that instantly fulfils statutory reporting obligations and reduces the risk of human error. This becomes particularly important in times of international emergency such as the outbreak of COVID-19, where serious penalties are in place for those who don’t undertake self-isolation or follow business protocol.

In summary

Follow these general principles and you’ll be leveraging the expertise Whispir has built up over 20 years crisis communications workflow platform experience with emergency providers, government departments and companies across several sectors – including coordinating communications for the recent bushfires and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Incidents affecting business operations are a daily occurrence, and without proper management and communications, incidents can easily escalate into critical events that can significantly impact an organisations operation. Pandemics magnify these conditions.

However, businesses can be prepared by harnessing suitable communication tools to guide them through difficult environments.

The integration of automated communications technology into day-to-day processes ensures you are always prepared, and these guiding principles should be considered when communicating to each of your stakeholder groups.

To keep your organisations on the right path, Whispir has created a list of templates to help you interact with staff, suppliers and business partners in real-time, at scale with full audit trails. These are ‘drag and drop’, do not require your IT manager to build or integrate, and can be implemented in less than a day. These can be accessed here.

If you would like to learn more about Whispir’s communication platform capabilities, click here.

Jeromy Wells is the CEO of Whispir (ASX:WSP)

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