How to evaluate if your coronavirus message is necessary

Though some PR experts call for erring on the side of over-communicating, inundated and anxious audiences will appreciate any effort to avoid unnecessary outreach.

The military has well-defined etiquette for radio network traffic. When you have a TIC – troops in contact [with the enemy] – anyone with routine traffic should stay off the network. This leaves the line open for the on-scene commander and his commanding officer to communicate.

That’s what businesses should think about right now—staying off the net. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is not a crisis that requires “over-communication” as the PR conventional wisdom prescribes.

Certainly, there are cases where it makes sense for businesses to communicate. Banks and utilities that are closing or limiting services are good examples. However, those types of companies are experiencing business disruptions that directly impact customers.

The problem is when other companies feel pressured to communicate merely because they see other businesses communicating. That’s not a good reason to reach out. It clutters the lines of communication with non-essential messages.

Establish a threshold that triggers communication

A good way to evaluate whether external communications is necessary is to establish a threshold. That threshold will be met when a company finds contingency plans directly affect customers.

For example, products offered by B2B cloud software and SaaS companies could be more essential given the mandate for remote work—but when should they reach out?

Threshold considerations might include:

  • Prospective customers struggle to reach sales.
  • Existing customers have trouble reaching support.
  • Account managers are less available or responsive.
  • There are service disruptions (which is a crisis anyway for cloud companies).

There could be other thresholds that could apply to your business’ unique situation. It’s worth brainstorming internally and examining if, and when, customers really need to hear from your company at this moment in time.

When you have to speak

If your company does meet the threshold you’ve determine, then tried and true crisis communications wisdom applies: Be transparent. Take responsibility. Work toward a resolution. Be human and decent in all communications.

Some of the main points worth considering in specific coronavirus-related communications may include:

  • The effects of the virus on your workforce and office locations
  • Policies you’ve implemented to reduce the risk to your employees
  • The impact or disruption those policies will have on services, support, day-to-day and long-term operations
  • Steps the company is taking (or plans to take) to mitigate those disruptions
  • Digital resources the company has developed as a matter of routine support or to offer updates about the company’s status during this pandemic

If you are candid, your customers will likely be understanding. These are strange times. None of us have lived through an event like this before.

Compounding circumstances

The worst-case scenario for crisis communicators in a technology company is compounding circumstances. For example, a SaaS company that’s hit with cyberattacks while 90% of it’s workforce is working remotely for the first time.

If your service is disrupted for customers, you are stuck at home and you lose email communications—how do you coordinate a public response? Now is a good time to address this, because all indications are we’ll be segregated in remote work environments for a while.

Here are some considerations:

  • Most cybersecurity problems are still caused by clicking on malicious links. It’s a good time to get the security team and internal comms to send out a cybersecurity best practices note for remote workers.
  • Send an email to crucial leaders with your mobile phone information now, while you have access, and create a list of mobile numbers you might need if your email isn’t working tomorrow. You can do this rapidly with collaborative tools like Google Sheets.
  • About 45% of communicators say they have a crisis communications plan. Now is a good time to dust it off and look at your plan for what else could go wrong in the current environment.

There’s a lot to consider, so a good tool for prioritizing your efforts is another borrowed tool from military planners: the risk assessment matrix. The matrix, depicted below, classifies events  by the probability they will occur, and the severity of the impact they will have.

Those events deemed “high” or “moderate” risk should become your priorities:

Second and third order effects

Whether you decide to communicate about the coronavirus now or choose to refrain, all communicators should be thinking about the second and third order effects, another military planning concept.

If the coronavirus itself is the first-order effect, the second and third-order follow as a result of that first order, or decisions made in response to that first-order effect.

Here’s a hypothetical example in a software company: With 30% of the support team out with a sickness, a company pulls development resources to field support calls. This decision will have a second-order effect that pushes back the timeline for delivering on features in a product roadmap.

Thinking about the downstream effects on the company, and working on messaging for those effects, is a great way for strategic communicators to add value. Executives might have too much to think about today to entertain the idea, but tomorrow they’ll have a sense of relief when they realize you’ve thought through a lot of this from a messaging perspective already.

Fewer emails—please.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. These ideas are intended to provoke thought. However, I’m confident in saying our customers probably don’t need a dozen emails from every software product we subscribe to telling us to wash our hands or practice social distancing.

We should all want to keep that channel open for important communications from authoritative sources – and in case we have a genuine crisis about which to communicate.

Frank Strong is founder of Sword and the Script Media. A version of this article originally appeared on the Sword and the Script site.

How you engage your internal stakeholders could be the difference in your recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Join Ragan’s Internal Communications & Culture Virtual Conference April 21–22 from the safety of your own home.

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