Pandemic Response – A Risk Communication Approach
Updated: May 14
Coronavirus launched us into a global health crisis. From the start there have been plenty of pundits, including yours truly, providing advice on how business owners, CEOs and politicians should respond. My earlier forays urged small businesses to get on board with social media to inform employees and retain customer loyalty, lamented our nation’s lack of adequate pandemic planning and spoke to actions we can all take to limit social distancing loneliness, and took Washington’s governor to task for placing data ahead of people and letting issues simmer far too long.
Throughout these weeks I’ve also found one message returning over and over to my thoughts – the video to employees and associates from Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson. He exemplified traditional crisis communication fundamentals in a masterful and simple manner: He projected authenticity and empathy, demonstrated leadership through corporate responsibility and control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation, called it like it is, and then shone an inspirational light at the end of the tunnel.
Of course the pandemic is more than a one-time chance to communicate. Its prolonged and evolving nature lends itself, from a strategic perspective, more so to the benefits of risk communication – careful planning, empowerment of advocates, collaboration, working with credible experts, involving and listening to others, and building long-term relationships.
With Sorenson in mind, but leaning more toward the long-term type of communication currently challenging our policy makers, I’ve developed two pandemic-specific lists to complement existing guidance on crisis management and risk communication.
“Essential Elements of Pandemic Management” provides organizational leaders a blueprint for both communication and policy action. The only carryover (at a list-making level) is from crisis management – the care and empathy piece. It’s also the most important, and comes with danger if demonstrated haphazardly.
COVID-19 is not an equal-opportunity virus; we do not all share the same level of physical, social (including educational) or economic vulnerability – not by a long shot. Arne Sorenson, sadly, spoke from a position of impaired health, and in doing so invoked our sympathies and helped open our hearts to his message. For most of us, making that connection is more challenging, and we must walk with great care; there are impacts going on behind curtains that we can only learn of through a genuine interest in people’s lives.
Number three of the companion “Guiding Principles for Pandemic Communication” advances the management theme of care, concern and empathy – particularly, how to adapt advertising to the now overwrought cliché of “these uncertain times.” During his weekly “hit and miss of the week” on YouTube, Fast Company’s Jeff Beers contrasts the tone-deaf fails of major brands with those who exude authenticity and relevance. The latter typically are not after “the sell.” Instead, they demonstrate a singular focus on human values surrounding the brand.
The lessons Beers provides are just as relevant to small businesses. Owners should use all communication platforms – which needs to include social media – to inspire others to be part of the health solution. The resulting gains in public confidence and reputation will reap more benefits in recovery than any product discounts businesses might offer.
Employee adherence to pandemic policies is also crucial. Support for related business decisions – like store or restaurant occupancy restrictions or personal protective requirements – is contingent upon buy-in to the conventional wisdom about a pandemic’s true threat. Since a pandemic affects “different regions at different times and with varying severity,” scanning the local community without larger geographic context will likely provide an inaccurate characterization of the threat and undermine acceptance of and adherence to appropriate protective actions.
Pages of additional talking points are in my head, yet I’ve endeavored on these infographics to express in few words the spirit of the larger efforts. Together they speak to long-term relationship building and partnerships that foster goodwill and mutual understanding, thereby strengthening organizational reputation during times of global health crisis.
Please share freely; click on either list to display and downloaded as a PDF file. As always, I welcome critical feedback and comments.
My thanks to Nick Lippold at Inspired Dog for his superior graphic design handiwork.
Stay safe and healthy!
Tri-Cities PR is interested in helping your organization manage its communication, and its reputation, to help ensure your success when we emerge from this difficult time. To start a conversation on your situation and whether we can help, please call Mike Paoli at 509-713-4950.