Speed is of the essence
If you have a possible positive case of Covid-19 at either your store or head office, the approach should be the same: get into communication mode quickly. People are hungry for information and want it quickly, regardless of how much other work you’re doing behind the scenes.
Remember that your business is usually able to offer information faster than government health authorities, who understandably have a lot to do at the moment. Anticipate the questions that are going to be asked, and make sure you have helpful, transparent answers for the most frequently asked queries.
When it comes to speed, here’s a prime example of what you don’t want to happen: a man who came in close contact with a Covid-19 case at a Sydney Fitness First gym wasn’t contacted by authorities for ten days, and only found out about the case through a Facebook post.
As the man told News.com.au: “I’ve only got to isolate for about three days. I could’ve literally been wandering around with Covid for about 10 days and infecting who knows.”
Fitness First’s reputation has been majorly damaged because they relied too heavily on the NSW Health Authorities at a time when they should have been taking their own decisive, rapid action and communicating the breach clearly and safely to their affected members.
There is often a misguided expectation that the crisis will be taken care of by someone else. While government and health departments clearly have a vital role to play, they’re not going to be able to tackle every part of your media relations and communications strategy. Their primary focus will always be on the case, not your business.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Retailers have a clear duty to keep their customers, staff, and stakeholders informed and ensure the lines of communication remain open throughout the crisis. Preparation is the key to making this happen.
It always pays to prepare for any kind of crisis well ahead of time, but when it comes to Covid, it’s even more critical to get on top of things today. We’ve already seen many examples of cases moving at rapid speed throughout a community, and businesses struggling to cope with the deluge of questions and concerns that get thrown their way.
Look at every single one of your communication channels: your social media channels, website, email and text databases, notices in store windows, and internal staff communication. For each channel, ensure you’re able to send the right message at the right time. You’d be surprised how often a missing database login or forgotten Facebook password can add to the pressure for a business in crisis mode.
Speak directly to your stakeholders
Once you’ve decided which channels you need to use and when, make sure you’re clear on which stakeholders are best approached on which channel. It might sound obvious, but the information you’ll be communicating to customers will be very different to that which you’ll communicate to suppliers. It’ll certainly be different from the messaging you’ll create for your staff, the media, and your competitors.
Expect that you’ll need to send out at least five or six different pieces of communication as the case evolves – even more if your business has a wide range of stakeholders with different needs.
Even if there are customers and staff members who would have absolutely no risk of being affected by the case, it’s still important to communicate clearly and calmly to anyone who might be concerned.
Go the extra mile
Simply telling people to ‘call their local health department’ isn’t good enough: businesses need to be willing to go the extra mile, even if it comes at an expense. Do customers or staff need a chartered bus to get them home? Are you offering counselling for those affected? Are you making it as easy as possible for your staff to work from home? Do you need to provide masks free of charge to customers? How can you make things feel safer for everyone involved?
If your staff are isolating at home, check in on them every now and again – virtually, of course. It’s important to make it clear that you’re fully supporting any and all efforts to keep both your staff and customers safe.
Go the extra mile when it comes to cleaning, and communicate that effort clearly to both customers and staff. Share videos of regular deep cleaning in action on your social channels, and regularly talk through the precautions that are being taken. In fact, photos and videos of hygiene practices should be shown regularly long before a positive case hits.
Customers have high expectations of retailers, and even if a coronavirus case it utterly outside of your control, the onus is still on the business when it comes to care, communication and management of the situation. Focus on all the things you are doing, which will help steer the conversation away from all the things that might not have gone so perfectly.
Delegate roles clearly
No matter how much preparation you do, there’s no avoiding the fact that a single bad interview has the power to turn an entire media narrative on its head. That’s why businesses need to make it crystal clear exactly who is allowed to take interviews and liaise with the media.
Prepare your team ahead of time so that if a journalist calls, everyone knows who they need to be transferred to. Ensure your receptionists or customer care call centres are clear on how to tackle the media without accidentally giving an interview or letting the wrong information slip.
When a coronavirus case hits, the one thing you can be sure of is that the media will find a way to contact you. Make sure the right person is on the other end of the call when they do.
Keeping quiet won’t cut it
It might be easy to assume that if your business is facing a Covid-19 crisis, the best plan of action is to stay quiet. But when a crisis hits, who do you want in control of your narrative: you, or the media? By keeping quiet, you’re firmly placing control in the media’s hands, and the odds of a positive outcome are slim to zero.
Ask yourself: ‘is this story going to be talked about regardless of our assistance?’ If the answer is yes, then it’s much better to start communicating as soon as you can. If your business chooses to stay silent, that’s when hype and hysteria can mutate the story and turn it into something it’s not.
Believe it or not, admitting you don’t have all the answers is still better than saying nothing at all. Customers and the media alike will respond better to honesty than stonewalling, every single time.
Instead, try saying something along the lines of ‘we will update you again when we know XYZ’. This gives the impression of a clear plan of action, but gives space to admit that you’re still figuring things out. If people know another update is coming, they’re far more likely to wait quietly until they hear the next piece of information.
It’s easy for retailers to feel like they’re the biggest victims of the pandemic. But remember, if your business is facing a Covid-19 case, then your staff and customers are being affected too. Their health is at risk, and now is the time to do everything in your power to reassure them and keep them loyal to your business.
If you can manage the situation well, then there’s actually a chance of coming out the other side with an improved reputation and increased long-term customer loyalty. In order for customers to want to spend money with you, you need to work on ensuring your business is safe now and into the future.
Above all, when a crisis hits, do not add to the chaos and anxiety. Do not create hype and hysteria. Instead, be a different voice: one that puts people before profit, speaks in facts, is in control, is clear, proactive and calm. Remind people that you are in your position of influence and authority for a reason: because you do things well.
Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations, a PR firm for SMEs and not-for-profits, that focuses on outcomes, not output – it’s pure and simple. purepublicrelations.com.au