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Communicating during The Next Phase of COVID-19: The Re-opening of the Economy

COVID-19 has created many new challenges for companies and communications has been one of them. Companies have grappled with: what to communicate, when, with what tone, and how often? The next phase of the pandemic, with governments locally, nationally and internationally looking to start re-opening the economy, will also bring its own set of challenges. Depending on the company and industry, these might include whether to continue working remotely or how to re-open offices and shops safely, as well as what new protocols to put in place. It could also mean deciding whether to continue offering new goods or services launched during the shut-down, or how to newly engage with customers, employees and donors when events, tradeshows and travel will likely not re-start for a while. All of these decisions will need a strong communications plan associated with them in order to ensure messages are landing effectively and emphatically, with all stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, donors, and suppliers. When contemplating how to communicate in this new phase, here are some key things to consider:

1. Continue to put health and well-being first: Employees and customers will need to know that every decision you are making is guided by your concern for their best interest, and health and well-being. Trying to re-open without taking the necessary steps to protect safety and clearly communicating what you are doing could lead to customer backlash and employee push back.

2. Understand how expectations have shifted: The world has changed in the months we’ve been under lockdown and employees and customers expectations have shifted too. Trying to go back to business as usual will likely fail. It’s important to get a good feel for how expectations have changed, and address how you have adapted in your communications. With social distancing many people have more time to provide feedback so it is a good time to capitalize on their willingness to do so.

3. Continue to contingency plan: Even though restrictions may start to ease, if infection numbers rise or we have the much discussed second wave of infections, new measures could be put back into place quickly. Also, experts are still debating how long it will take for the economy to recover. Similar to crisis planning, organizations need to do the same exercise of planning many different scenarios related to both COVID-19 and the economic downturn and how to communicate for each of them. Some of this communications planning may never see the light of day – but it is important to have communications in place for the various scenarios so your business is able to be nimble and customers can see an appreciated level of care and planning.

4. Be adaptable: Coupled with contingency planning it’s important to be adaptable in both your actions and communications. The recovery phase will have lots of changes, stops and starts, and so messaging will likely need to be continuously evolving. It’s also important to pivot as you can feedback from employees and customers on what they need. There will also be gaps in information, so it’s important to be honest about what you know and don’t know.

5. Express gratitude: Thank your loyal employees, customers, investors, donors and suppliers for their support during this difficult time. Let them know you appreciate their understanding and patience as you transitioned into this new world. Acknowledge that there will be more bumps along the way, and commit to doing your best to communicate with them with business updates in the future. Stay “close” virtually using communications technologies.

The next stage of the pandemic will continue to require transparency, empathy, leadership and most of all strong communications. It won’t be enough to assume that your stakeholders understand what you’re doing and why, you need to tell them – and in some cases – you will also need to retell and remind. It’s more imperative than ever to communicate, and then recommunicate as we all navigate these strange and rough waters.

Kylie McMullan is the principal of Finch Media and is a communications strategy expert who has worked on a number of issues and recalls across a number of industries including healthcare and consumer packaged goods.
Julia Smith is the Managing Director at Finch Media, an internal communications expert with extensive crisis work, including work around the Ebola crisis in 2014.