British businesses are quickly waking up to the reality that the coronavirus is no longer just ‘something happening in China’ but about to become a UK crisis, too.

Firms are scrambling to put operational measures in place but — judging from conversations I’ve had in recent days — some are struggling with the crisis communications aspects, while they know it’s vital to protect their reputations during any disruption that lies ahead.

Epidemic ‘likely’

With the number of British people infected by Covid-19 now well over 100 and swiftly rising — and the UK’s first coronavirus deaths — Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, says an epidemic in Britain is “likely.” And it appears to be coming thick and fast.

The Government is enacting emergency legislation and Whitty has warned that, in a “reasonable worst-case scenario”, as much as 80% of the UK population could be infected – presumably a step up from the Prime Minister’s already-stark forecast of 20% of the workforce.

This represents a probable crisis for the UK economy. And the need for companies to develop coronavirus crisis plans is urgent.

Operational measures

Many companies are busy putting operational contingency measures in place.

You may find you have to ask your employees to work from home, replacing face-to-face meetings with video and conference calls.

Even if you don’t need to do this, you may be hit by many of your staff ‘self-isolating’ while they’re ill or being tested – or staying home because their kids’ schools are closed or they have to care for sick elderly relatives.  And you might need to stop business travel and cancel events. France, Italy and Switzerland have already banned large gatherings.

This means having the right operational contingency plans so you know exactly which steps to take at which trigger points. You need the technology and training for effective remote working — up and running now. Some firms are doing practice runs. You need to review your HR policies governing when your staff should stay home and what they’ll get paid.

You may be looking at emergency staff to cover for absences and appointing backup suppliers. Jaguar Land Rover resorted to importing car parts in suitcases because their normal supply lines in China were crippled by the virus.

If you make products, you’re probably considering how you would scale back production or close your factories if needed.

Communication measures

Of course, it’s vital to have crisis communications plans in place to support your operational measures.

There’s no one-size-fits-all ‘coronavirus crisis PR plan’. Each firm is different and needs to prepare for the potential scenarios it faces in terms of communications as well as operational actions. And some are struggling with this most of all.

Seven fundamental questions

If you are working through your ‘coronavirus communications’, a simple framework that may help is to address the following seven fundamental questions:

  1. What do you need to communicate now? You may not be at crisis point yet, but most businesses should be talking to their employees and reassuring external audiences early that they’re in good shape to weather any storms ahead.
  2. What might you need to communicate later – depending on how the crisis unfolds and the measures you need to invoke? There will be various possible answers to this and preparing now for each is important to minimise stress and chaos at a time you’ll be least able to handle it.
  3. What should you communicate proactively, and what would be better to handle reactively if certain matters arise?
  4. Who are your main audiences? Your employees are obviously vital and need to be reassured and clear on what you need them to do. But what about your customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders? In certain scenarios, for example, will you need to reset your customers’ expectations of the service or products they’ll receive and ensure they understand why?
  5. What channels will be most effective to reach each audience at each point?
  6. Who should lead each strand of communication?
  7. Vitally, in all your communications, what underlying message should you be delivering? Being seen to take appropriate control and not unnecessarily raising alarm is the skilful balance to strike.

Business confidence

To maintain business confidence and minimise any long-term damage, acting now is important – not only on operational measures but your communications, as well.

That way, if the worst-case scenarios arise, you’ll be ready. And if we find they’re overstated … well, that’s the best outcome all round.

Let us know if we can help.


See more on TK Associates’ crisis communications services.