COVID-19: The Bottom Line for Business Owners
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
I had the pleasure of chatting on-air this past Monday with Robb Francis, co-host of The Bottom Line on 610 KONA news radio. We discussed how businesses can best manage their reputations during this health crisis. In short, stay connected, have a plan, and communicate. A listener in Southern California later posted, “I brought your idea back to my boss about targeted communication to *our* constituents rather than just repeating the stuff we are all hearing ad nauseam.”
Please enjoy this slightly redacted transcript, and stay healthy!
Monday, Mar. 16, 3 p.m.
Robb: 547-1610 is the number if you want to get involved. … We are going to discuss an aspect of the governor’s [press] conference and the impact that it’s certainly going to have on a number of businesses in the area. Joining us on the line is the founder and owner of Tri-Cities Public Relations, Mike Paoli. …
Like everyone, we’re all trying to wrap our heads around this, Mike. … From a business perspective, Mike, let’s talk a little bit about … some of the things that local business owners can try to do to at least make the best of the situation?
Mike: You bet. I was hearing the stress – I think everybody was – coming over the phone from Dan, who just called in a few minutes ago. A restaurant owner, you could hear the stress and, in fact, I think you could hear the anger as well.
These measures that are intended to save lives are impacting people in other ways. You know, if we can help alleviate that through communication … then that’s absolutely what we want to do.
First and foremost, business owners need to stay connected to official information sources, right? I think you guys have talked about the scams going on, the bad information circulating in social media. People are sending out bogus preventions to the COVID virus. They’re sending people to sites that aren’t reputable or official.
You’ve got to stay connected to the official sources. You guys have been talking about the CDC site. I’ve spoken to reps from both county emergency services here in town. These folks are well-connected, they’re in the know. We need to listen to what’s coming out of these agencies.
There are also good sites out there like AWB.org, the Association of Washington Business. They’ve got a great resource page that consolidates the various websites out there – not just CDC, but OSHA, resources from the governor, that sort of thing.
Second, business owners need to have a communication plan, and one that’s tailored to the specific needs and concerns of employees and their customers.
And finally, the third point I’d stress, they need to know how they will respond should COVID-19 be traced back to their business, right? That could be a problem. That could be a liability. They need to know now how they’ll respond to that.
Robb: … For those business that are specifically involved in person-to-person communication – and I mean those that specifically provide a service, those that are impacted, the restaurants, the bars, that do business on a daily basis and rely on that – some may turn around and do some kind of food delivery service, some may turn around and just decide to shutter their doors altogether. …
What are some things that a business that may close its doors for the next two weeks, that may not provide some of those services, what are some things that they can do to stay in the public consciousness?
Mike: Well, first, don’t underestimate the power of social media. Within the last hour I received a wonderful email from Bank of America about how they’re concerned for all their customers. I saw one in social media from the Delta Airlines CEO earlier today talking about concern for customers first and foremost. Even businesses that have closed their doors can still be communicating and talking about what they are doing, perhaps altruistically, to help the community while they’re shut down. They can talk about, maybe, what they’re going to plan when they open up those doors again.
I’ve heard some of this already, and I think it could be a problem for businesses – don’t come out and say ‘Hey, we’re looking forward to serving you again whenever that should happen.’ Start setting some milestones now based on what the government is doing. The government isn’t saying, “Hey, we’re going to shut everything down until further notice.” They’re saying, “We’re going to shut everything down for 15 days and then we’ll re-evaluate at that time.”
Milestones are important for people. People need to know that you have a plan for them, that you’re in some kind of control of the business impact …. It’s good to know that, “Hey, we’re closing our doors until the 14th of April, unless you hear otherwise from us. And that may change, but right now that’s our plan.” Hey, that’s great, that gives people confidence, it shows them a light at the end of the tunnel, and they can go on with their lives. Now if we have to push that out later on, okay, great, but I would advise owners to avoid phrases like ‘until further notice,’ or ‘we don’t know, you’ll just have to flow along with the best of us.’ That projects a lack of control, and, really, our customers and employees want to know that we’re planning ahead, that we’re looking at all the options.
Robb: I would imagine Mike that it’s extremely important for those locally owned businesses – I’m referring strictly to the mom and pops, not franchises of major corporations, but the mom and pops – they’re the ones that stand to be impacted the most by this. For them, I would imagine that if they do not have social media, they do not have a web site, they don’t have that expansive outreach, then that’s got to be a priority for them right now so they do not get lost in the shuffle.
Mike: That’s right, they’ve got to communicate with their customer base. I guess that some of the mom and pops may not be active on social media. I don’t think we can say, in this day and age, that they don’t have access to social media. But I can see that you might not be active on it.
I’ll tell you, if you can’t see your employees face to face, if you can’t see your customers face to face, then for those mom and pops that are not active on social media for their business, now is the time to really think about the value that that can bring to them, the trust they can build while they’re out of the public eye so that when they do open their doors, they’ve got people that are ready to come back and give them business.
Even communicating in real time, going back to Dan the restaurant owner. He’s frustrated, right? His restaurant’s being closed down by the government. There’s nothing he can do about it. He’s not happy about it. You know, you can vent on social media. People will be sympathetic to that. People will be empathetic to that, and they’ll want to help you out.
The Leadership Tri-Cities here in town – one of its members is gathering up all the past 24 or so classes to get efforts together to go out and help local businesses. Well, if you’re a business that would like to be on the receiving end of that, you’ve kind of got to be out there in front of people. Right now I think the only way you’re going do that is through social media.
Robb: A number of these businesses are going to be impacted that rely on a part-time wage force. What are some of the things – particularly for the restaurants, bars, [etc.,] that do have a significant amount of part-time employees – that they can do to maybe avoid having to lay people off? Or [things] to get them incorporated into another avenue within the business so that employers can continue to, ‘A,’ allow them to work, but also find possibly some other resources that this pandemic is presenting that they may be able to incorporate into their business in the future?
Mike: Robb, I think that’s the million-dollar question, and I’m afraid I’m not going to have the answer to that because I’m looking at the news today, that you guys were reporting earlier, that restaurants, hotels, and the airlines especially, they’re all looking at laying people off, and I’m not sure there’s a way to avoid that at any level without government subsidy.
Here’s the thing. The Who – the World Health Organization – told us last summer that the United States was not ready for a pandemic, and I think fundamentally what that meant, is that while we might be able to respond quickly to close each other off and enact social distancing, we don’t have safety nets in place in this country to pick up those who are facing layoffs and that sort of thing.
But I can tell business owners what they can do to manage that anxiety for their employees. They need to communicate, right? But don’t fixate on the obvious. We don’t need to be told to wash our hands, stay away from sick people and practice social distancing. We’re getting that through many other channels. I’m hearing it almost every hour on the hour through commercials here on KONA.
What employers need to do is communicate to their employees the things that they do have control of that are specific to their concerns and their needs.
For instance, what are the trigger points for local shops – let’s say you’re a hardware store or a dry cleaners – for scaling back business? What has to happen before they say, ‘Hey, we’re going to scale back’? What has to happen before you close? What are those trigger points? And maybe, what even has to happen before you reopen?
Determine what those trigger points are, and then communicate them to your employees so your employees don’t get hit by a brick one day with something that you saw coming down the road. Give them a sense that, “Hey, we’re listening to the radio, and if by end of week the pandemic is getting worse, we are going to close and I’ll make that decision by Friday.” Tell your employees that, so you can manage their anxiety.
I think that’s first and foremost, because when this is all over, and it’s time to rehire people that have been let go, folks aren’t going to want to come back to you, if they have an option, if they were just kind of left dangling out there in the wind with no insight into what the company was thinking or planning.
Robb: We’re talking with Mike Paoli, he’s the owner and founder of Tri-Cities Public Relations. Mike, if anyone listening in our audience that happens to be a small business owner, or if someone whose business may be impacted, and they want to talk to you a little bit more at length about some of the things that may benefit them down the road or during this particular crisis, how may they contact you?
Mike: They can check out my website, which is tricitiespr.com, or they can call me at 509-713-4950. And it is so important for folks to stay connected to official sources, and to have a plan and know how they’re going to communicate should COVID-19 touch their business. If anyone is going to bed tonight and they’re not sure how they’re going to do that, they’ve got a problem. They need to get on top of that.