Coronavirus presents a time of unparalleled uncertainty, making it the greatest communications challenge of our time.

Calming nerves will be much easier if we think strategically and communicate – clearly, succinctly and often.

Wilkinson Butler is a corporate affairs agency specialising in helping businesses overcome crises and big issues.

In the below episode of Quick Take, we explain one approach we can take to help businesses tackle the three distinct challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. The immediate crisis: right now there are anxious customers, staff and suppliers wanting answers;
  2. The hard slog to survive: you’ve got to keep folks with you as you manage through this;
  3. The rebuild: as Stephen Covey wrote, Begin With the End in Mind, so that you come through this stronger.

Under the video, we outline the blueprint in more detail.

Video Transcript

Liam Cox:

Coronavirus is the greatest communications challenge of our time. Here at Wilkinson Butler, we are a corporate affairs agency specializing in crisis management, helping business leaders deal with these big issues.

Peter Wilkinson let’s break down the approach for a business dealing with COVID-19, and there are three challenges to creating a strategy to survive. The first is the immediate response and critical preparation. The second is ongoing communication support, and the third is the rebuild.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah, so the first one is straight crisis communications, and crisis communications is all about solving a problem very quickly. And in the case of this particular crisis, clearly we have to settle staff, we have to settle suppliers and customers. We have to be very clear in our messaging, succinct, clear, repetitive is terribly important in messaging. We need a good, strong spokesperson.

And so, we’re talking about getting a clear idea of where we want to go and then getting it into a document, aim, objectives, an objective for each stakeholder. So an objective for staff might be to manage redundancies and keep our important staff. And then under that, the strategies and then tactics. But it’s very tactical.

And a good way of approaching this is if the CEO or corporate affairs or team leader can get critical people into a room. This is the critical leadership team. And I’d include also external lawyers and external comms people because they bring external experience from other companies. And in there, you can talk about that the CEO or the leader can talk about where the company is going to be going with two values. One is you’ll get feedback from the people in the room, but the other is you’ll enrol people on the journey.

So, there are two really critical things I think based on the experience we’ve had in the past with this, and that is to get people on the bus with us, to manage through the crisis, and to be nimble in getting stuff out, to communicate key messages to the various stakeholders.

Liam Cox:

As you said, many companies are thinking tactically right now. They’re in survival mode. But additionally, you need to get out of the way to rise above that and think strategically about where you’re going medium to long-term.

Peter Wilkinson:

Yeah. So the second challenge is really, as you said, it’s the survival mode. And it’s a different form of communications here. There are four things that are really critical in the second challenge. First is you’ve got to have unity in the leadership team. The second is you’ve got to have good, strong values driven messages. The third is you’ve got to have an excellent spokesperson, and the fourth is you’ve got to have nimble some.

And I might say there was a really good presentation by the head of Marriott, the hotel chain, a guy called Arne Sorenson, and we’ve got it on our LinkedIn page. It’s worth looking at that in terms of values driven messages. They come through very strongly in what he says, and his ability as a spokesperson, a very talented spokesperson.

Then the nimbleness is critical for very obvious reasons. In this stage, when we’re looking at massive disruption and managing a company, either down or through, and then up and through this particular phase, and then unity in the leadership team is really critical.

The trouble is if you get under stress, people lose sleep and begin to get frazzled and begin to argue. A 10 out of 10 decision with disunity very quickly become six out of 10. And so the experience from other crises managing through this period is if there’s a person who’s not on board, get them off the bus because it really can be damaging for the company.

Liam Cox:

So the communications there are both internally and externally crucial, and then you go further down the road and you look at the rebuild. That’s the third challenge.

Peter Wilkinson:

So the third stage, now, remember, these challenges aren’t consecutive, they’re concurrent. And you’ve heard companies starting on, you’ve heard ScoMo too and a variety of governments talking about when we get through this, we’ll be stronger. Okay, so you’ve got to put meat on the bone for that.

And so companies have got at the beginning to be thinking about, okay, the crisis immediately, and this is a corporate affairs challenge for all of us. Then, how do we manage through, and then how do we build out so that we’re stronger at the end? And remember, we’re talking about massive disruption here. So there’s every likelihood that the company is going to look quite different and our customers will be quite different. Maybe our suppliers will be different. Maybe what we produce will be different.

So, these are the kinds of things that we should be thinking about early on, and it’s a corporate affairs challenge as much as a leadership challenge. And the challenge here is about creativity, looking for new ideas and looking for new ways to communicate.

So, the first challenge was about crisis, getting through that. The second was about that survival mode, getting through it. The third is about the rebuild. And so the strategy document right there, while it’s going to have the same skeleton, is going to be fundamentally different because it’s going to be more about the objectives, but with each stakeholder. So the objectives might be for new customers, finding new markets, how do we find new markets? How do we communicate what the company does to reach new markets? And how do we communicate with our suppliers through that period and the staff and their families? And that’s much less about tactics because we haven’t got there yet, but the framework stays the same, aim objectives by stakeholders, strategies, tactics.

And when you’re writing these three documents, keep them short, just bullet points, a couple of pages if you can so they’re really easy to read and for people to understand what’s being said. The difficulty with writing a long document is it’s very easy to get lost in writing the document rather than understanding and really having a firm grasp on the objectives and the strategies and the tactics. And the other problem with a long document is only a few people read the bloody thing anyway.

Liam Cox:

Peter, some really practical advice, tremendous insight. Thank you. Everyone out there, look after yourselves and stay healthy.

Here’s a communications plan blueprint for the three distinct challenges most businesses must tackle to get through the COVID-19 crisis:

Challenge 1: Immediately manage the crisis

Right now, all your stakeholders are anxious. The aim is to get past this hump – the immediate restructure to stabilise the business. If you haven’t already, you should consider:

  • Facilitating a strategy session with the Leadership team:
    • The aim is to get ahead of the crisis.
    • You should clarify your objectives for each stakeholder (mapping and analysis). For instance, for the staff it might be to keep the people who are critical for the business.
    • The strategy will be strengthened by unity and nimbleness within the leadership team.
  • Writing/annunciating a communications plan – short-term – so that everyone knows where we are heading:
    • Keep documents simple so they are easy to understand and implement.
    • Roll-out stakeholder engagements – clear, concise, repetitive – including media and social media protocols if they are relevant.
    • Keep up with what is happening: set up monitoring of traditional and social media channels and political announcements for intelligence gathering.

Challenge 2: The hard slog to survive

The aim now is to ride out the downturn.

You must be quick to change as your circumstances change, and maintain strong ongoing communication to keep folks with you as you manage through this. Critical tasks for your comms team might include:

  • Fundamentally different objectives for your stakeholders.
  • Preparedness to review the strategies and tactics: measure, review, react.
  • Monitoring of the four critical success-points:
    • Unity amongst the leadership team.
    • Values-driven messages.
    • A trained spokesperson.
    • Nimbleness – change is the constant.
  • Write or annunciate a communications plan, no longer a crisis plan, but a short medium-term survival plan with your changed objectives (this will keep teams together and motivated, keeping suppliers and customers on your journey).
  • Intelligence gathering and forecasting via social and traditional media, and politics announcements.
  • Responding to queries to minimise long-term damage to the reputation of the company.

Challenge 3: The rebuild

As Stephen Covey famously wrote, Begin With the End in Mind, so that you come through stronger. Don’t wait for this challenge: Challenges 2 & 3 can be concurrent conversations within the leadership team.

This is going to involve creative thinking. Those that adapt best, will emerge strongest.

To do this:

  • Think strategically and creatively; as we emerge markets will be disrupted. In some respects life will be different: will we work more from home, will our ambitions have changed, will our products be different?
  • Understand that the strategic thinking here, and the communications plan you develop, is focused on the longer-term.
  • Know that how you operate through this crisis will dicate your reputation on the other side. How you execute your strategy and communications will dictate your reputation on the other side.

Whether you need immediate short-term crisis support, or sustained help over the long term, we can help.

Call Peter Wilkinson on 0414 383 433

In addition to helping you with the above, our services can include:

Crisis Management

Crisis communications is a skill built on experience. We give guidance to boards and leadership teams, and are available 24/7.

Internal and external communications

Where required, separate strategies might need to be developed for engaging with the board, leadership team, staff, customers, clients, suppliers, shareholders, communities and the three tiers of government. This may extend to the international community. Tactics include:

  • The development of key messages for internal and external communications, including business continuity communications.
  • The development of a digital ‘crisis portal’ for the dissemination of information to all relevant parties.
  • The mechanics of informing stakeholders in changes of procedure, or cancellations to services.
  • Training/coaching spokespeople.
  • Writing/editing communiques.
Media Engagement

In this crisis, journalists are struggling under the pressures of shrinking resources and the importance of this story.

We work with journalists daily and have learnt from experience how we can best support them in this situation.

The benefit to our clients is that, with our help, journalists better understand their predicament. We do this by first understanding your situation and then developing a narrative and key messages that reflect it in a way journalists can appreciate. This can lead to a better outcome for everyone.

Social Media & Online Reviews – Monitoring and Responding

Ensure your online reputation is kept intact through this turbulent time. Many customers or clients may begin to leave negative comments/reviews on websites and social media.

We are communications specialists. We monitor all social and web channels (including Google Reviews, productreview.com.au, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and quickly respond to minimise negative comments, with the aim of repairing a damaged reputation.