COVID-19 (formerly known as novel coronavirus) has sadly sickened thousands of people in countries from China to Iran to the United States, and has proven fatal for many, especially the elderly and those with existing health issues. A vaccine is still weeks away (at minimum) and no one yet knows how the disease will spread or how effective response measures will be.
As of this writing (Tuesday, March 3rd), the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow, and businesses are temporarily closing operations and cancelling non-essential travel. Conferences are shifting to purely virtual gatherings, and universities are suspending their exchange programs. Even missionaries are putting travel on hold while the world watches and waits to see how this disease spreads.
A great deal has already been written about how to respond to this situation from a public relations standpoint (hint: good crisis communications and hygienic principles still apply) and on whether or not the world public health response is appropriate or represents either an overreaction or underreaction. Certainly, the stock market has reacted wildly to events.
Because so much has already been written, I’m going to take a different track and focus on some of the less-discussed implications of COVID-19 and what organizations can do about them.
- Regularly communicating policies about travel, working remotely, attending conferences, etc. – Many organizations communicated about these issues when the virus first broke, but this is a rapidly-evolving situation, with new information coming to light and additional countries showing up as sites with concentrations of the disease. Plan on increasing employee communications to at least every two weeks, if not more often, as the situation progresses.
- Bypassing sometimes hyperbolic news coverage – Unfortunately, many reporters and broadcasters have a tendency to hype situations like this and create undue concern among the public. Instead of allowing your employees to be unduly frightened or concerned by how the media is covering the disease, make sure they get to see exactly what authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control are saying directly about the situation.
- Providing earnings guidance – It’s immediately become a lot harder for companies in the travel, hospitality and related industries to forecast how this situation will impact their earnings. What to do from an investor relations standpoint? At a minimum, we have seen companies blame the weather for their earnings shortfalls (even when this is a stretch), so certainly COVID-19 presents an easy opportunity to explain an earnings miss. Beyond that, though, there’s no requirement that companies have to be limited to communicating with their shareholders and other stakeholders just once a quarter. For the time being at least, companies can commit to more frequent updates on how COVID-19 is impacting traffic, revenue or other metrics. As just one example, even notoriously-silent Apple has done a great job with this.
- Recruiting (especially for roles that require travel) – For salespeople, consultants and other “road warriors,” it’s a disconcerting sight walking through airports seeing numerous people wearing masks. What to do? Consider videoconferencing and other such capabilities now, while making a commitment to resume face-to-face visits once the crisis breaks.
- Reviewing cleaning standards – Public health authorities have already made clear that the simple standards people should use to avoid colds and the flu are the ones to take to avoid COVID-19. Employers and landlords could go the extra mile to increase the frequency and intensity of their janitorial staffs – and communicate the additional steps they’ve taken to reassure their tenants/employees.
In a fluid situation like this one, more is still unknown than known. But forward-looking communicators need to look beyond the here and now and consider steps that may need to be taken tomorrow or the next day. What are you doing to prepare for what’s next?