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How to... communicate out of a pandemic

10 July 2020

There has never been a more important time to connect with stakeholders. Neil Kent lays out a communications strategy

The hospitality and events industry was the deckchair on the beach of the coronavirus tsunami: catapulted into the commercial abyss. Revenues evaporated overnight for many businesses, with instant closures. Venues faced the added burden of returning customer deposits and postponing bookings, consuming the cash flow and the workload that followed. Sure, the pandemic has affected almost every other sector, but there aren't many that felt the pain so early in the pandemic and will continue to feel it while social distancing restrictions remain in force.

We all know this nightmare will come to an end. Life will return to relative normality and, while the social and economic impact will be an ever-present reminder of a black mark in our history, the deep scars will begin to heal. As we look to navigate the untrodden road ahead, new opportunities will emerge and our future world may actually, in many ways, be a better place.

New opportunities will emerge and our future world may actually, in many ways, be a better place

Whether you were able to operate throughout the crisis, are now beginning to resume operations or are yet to return to business, there has never been a more important time to connect with stakeholders. At a basic level, in order to communicate, you will need to map out a strategic plan for getting back on the road. Once you have a plan in place, it should be explained clearly to your employees, clients, suppliers and future customers. None of these cohorts will expect you to know precisely what lies ahead; the simple fact is that none of us do. But with a clear, concise and considered communication strategy, you stand a much greater chance of having people support you on your road to recovery.

Here is a six-point charter that should form the basis of any successful communication plan for businesses exiting a pandemic.

Be realistic on where you stand and what you can do

We're all desperate to start plying our trades once more and regain the trajectory we were on what seems like a very distant three months ago. For possibly the first time in our business lives, operations are dictated by a government directive that is dealing with an entirely unknown quantity.

Gain clarity on your position by refining your sources of information to government websites, national news outlets and trusted industry platforms.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it safe for us to return to work and can we operate in a responsible and practical way under the current guidance?
  • Can we add value for our customers right now?
  • Is it commercially viable to unfurlough team members and resume operations?
  • Who in the business is best-positioned to perform required tasks?

Determine who needs to know what

Split your stakeholders into as few groups as possible. Typically, these would be employees, customers, supplier/channel partners and service providers.

Decide when is the best time to communicate to them based on the role they play in your business and consider the information that each group will need to know. It's important to recognise that each sub-group will require a nuanced message that is tailored to them and some people will fall outside of a particular category or may require special attention, so this is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Define your processes internally

There is not necessarily one right way to operate, as each business has a specific set of circumstances that will determine what safe working is. Once you have established the critical elements of your processes and where they are needed, you need to communicate them internally and involve the team in defining them.

While it is the responsibility of the employer to create a safe working environment, employees should be consulted on matters that will impact their day-to-day working lives. You will need to discuss options such as whether they are comfortable wearing PPE for prolonged periods of time, if required, and how shift working might affect their personal commitments, for example. Conversations may be delicate and at times challenging, but they are wholly necessary if you are to emerge from this with a workforce that remains engaged with the common goal.

Once your key processes are agreed and internally accepted, they should be refined and simplified. Draft some wording that is sensitive yet clear, create graphics and diagrams where required and familiarise yourself with your new way of operating. It is unclear how long we'll all be operating in this new world, so expect these processes to be regularly adapted and amended over a prolonged period of time.

It is unclear how long we'll all be operating in this new world, so expect these processes to be regularly adapted and amended over a prolonged period of time

Formulate the message

By now we know what we need to say and to whom we must say it. Now we need to create the narrative that communicates the message in the most succinct way, while delivering all the relevant information to the current recipients.

At a time of crisis, more than ever businesses need to demonstrate empathy by showing an understanding of the concerns facing employees, customers and the wider industry. The events and hospitality industry is facing tremendous financial strain, and the people that rely on it are fearful of being swept along in the storm. Be open about the severity of the impact on your business but appreciate that it's not only you this has hurt.

Likewise, when you are trying to pack so much into a message it can be easy to forget your tone of voice. Staying true to your tried-and-tested brand voice will be more authentic and, in turn, believable. This can be as simple as considering how you start a message, or the sort of words you use. Like people, it's obvious when brands are being inauthentic and this only happens when they are panicking, or worse, trying to hide something.

Neil Kent is managing director of Chapter Communications

Photo: Shutterstock

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