Gini Dietrich

How to Handle Communications About the Coronavirus

By: Gini Dietrich | March 5, 2020 | 
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Coronavirus CommunicationsIt’s been a rough couple of weeks with all of the coronavirus news.

Just yesterday, CBS News reported the U.S. deaths from the disease have doubled.

To 11.

Now, I don’t want to take anything away from those 11 deaths. That’s horrible. But more people died in the Nashville tornado the night before last.

And maybe it IS double, but it’s certainly not THAT sensational.

All of this sensationalism is causing people to freak out—I mean, Costco is out of toilet paper!

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I haven’t been a little freaked out myself. I’ve been hoarding food (and wine and olive oil) since the 2016 election.

If anyone goes down in my house, we have enough to get a small village by for at least six weeks.

(But not enough toilet paper…I’ll have to start hoarding leaves next.)

And it’s been a topic of conversation both with my internal team and in the Spin Sucks Community:

  • Do we send a news release if we’re opting out of conferences?
  • Is this going to hit us like the recession did?
  • Should we cancel all non-essential travel?
  • What is our contingency plan should client budgets halt?
  • How do we get our bosses or clients to institute a work-from-home policy?
  • What happens if schools are canceled? Do we need homeschool technology to keep kids up-to-speed?

Always Take Crisis Advice from Melissa Agnes

Melissa Agnes’s newsletter focused on coronavirus and being prepared this week, from a crisis perspective.

There are a few questions she suggests you answer internally, if only to be prepared. Insurance, if you will.

  • How might coronavirus affect your business? What are the measurable indicators that will alert you when certain thresholds are reached?
  • Which clients, vendors, or partners is your business reliant on and how might coronavirus affect their businesses?
  • What questions and concerns from each key stakeholder group can you anticipate and get ahead of now—whether that means proactively communicating, and/or proactively getting ready to be reactive?
  • Are you instilling confidence in team members by anticipating and answering their questions and concerns with regards to how this might affect the business—which translates into their concerns of how this might affect them and their livelihood?
  • What are your organization’s policies with regards to things such as: remote-working, traveling, real-time monitoring, tracking and evaluation of business needs, supply-chain disturbances, business continuity, etc.?
  • Are these policies clearly communicated internally?
  • Furthermore, how and when might these policies be adapted or evolved? Make sure leadership is aligned on these answers.
  • Do you have an intranet or other form of internal communication platform where you are hosting relevant and timely information and directives for your teams? Who is responsible for drafting, approving and disseminating/publishing these communications—and is your internal population aware that this platform exists and is being kept current?

What Could Affect Your Business?

I told my team yesterday that I feel very lucky that we’re already a virtual organization.

Business continuity isn’t a problem for us.

What could become a problem, though, is two-fold:

  1. We’re a small team. If one or two of us get coronavirus, half our team is missing and that becomes a challenge. Of course, that’s a concern during flu season, regardless, but it’s rare that anyone is out more than two days. Working from home—and having everything you need to do your job without leaving your bed, means most of us can (and do) work when we still wouldn’t go into an office. Still, this seems like it’s a bad one and it could mean people are out longer than a couple of days.
  2. Clients could go awol. We have one client that does business solely in Asia. Right now, their CEO is telling me everything is fine, but I’m not sure how long that will last. With China and Japan effectively closed right now, we will likely see the trickle down effect of that this summer.

I also have the added stress that if they do close schools, it’ll be challenging for me to work full days.

There are only so many crafts, sewing projects, puzzles, and reading a six-year-old will do on their own.

And If Business Comes to a Screeching Halt?

It might very well be much ado about nothing.

From what I’m reading, it’s akin to getting a really bad cold or the flu—if you’re healthy and don’t have a compromised immune system.

But it’s highly contagious and it could very easily spread so fast, we’re all sick at once.

For some, that means hospitalization, which they’re fearful our infrastructure can’t handle.

So they may very well shut things down to prevent that.

In Chicago, alone, most of the major conferences held at McCormick Place have been canceled. And United Airlines just slashed their domestic flights.

THAT is what you need to be prepared for.

Yes, be ready to call it if people need to work from home or to stop all travel (not just non-essential) or to cancel your participation in a conference.

And be ready if business comes to a screeching halt for a few days or a week or two.

But what you really need to be prepared for are sluggish second and third quarters.

All of this hoopla is going to affect us this summer—when sales are down and leads are dry because the major events, where a good portion of leads are generated every year, didn’t happen.

Start Having Coronavirus Crisis Conversations Internally

If you’re not already, start having conversations with your bosses and/or clients.

Communicators need to be at the table for these conversations, leading them, not just listening and taking notes.

You need to ask the following questions—and get answers:

  • What are we discussing with our internal teams about how this might affect us?
  • How are we going to handle work-from-home and travel contingencies? When and how do we communicate that?
  • What are our plans A, B, and C for expense reduction through third quarter, at least?
  • How are our suppliers, vendors, and/or customers handling this and what are their contingency plans?
  • What are the varying levels of internal communication so our colleagues can stay focused because they know we’re looking out for them?
  • What happens to this business if it ends up like 2008 all over again and we lose half our revenue (or more)?

There should be a series of meetings you’re holding to get answers to all of these questions (and more).

Start with Melissa’s first question in every meeting:

How might coronavirus affect our business? What are the measurable indicators that will alert us when certain thresholds are reached? How has it affected us, so far?

No question is too alarming. In these conversations, the sky should be falling. That’s the only way to truly be prepared.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Hopefully, we can continue business as usual, but hope is not a strategy.

Preparation is key. I don’t know about you, but I’d much prefer to be ready, just in case, then not be ready and have the sky come crashing down on us.

Been there, done that. It’s not fun.

Get yourselves prepared. Force the hard conversations. Lead the communications.

This is your time to shine. It’s not a fun time, but it certainly allows you to step up and take a leadership position, either internally  or with your clients.

And, as always, if you need help thinking through things or brainstorming ideas, the comments below and the Spin Sucks Community are there for you.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She also has run, built, and grown an agency for the past 14 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.