The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of communications for business leaders.
In a new report from the Institute for Public Relations, in partnership with Peppercomm, 300 communications executives and business leaders were asked to share how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting their business.
Most said it had a “moderate” or “major” impact.
Communicators have an important role to play for their organizations as they look to organize messages and manage through the crisis.
For these leaders, important sources of information were health authorities and government agencies. They were less impressed with social media and national leaders.
“The fact that communication executives are turning away from country leaders and social media for COVID-19 information, and relying more on federal agencies and health-related global was one of the top findings of the report,” says Dr. Tina McCorkindale, CEO and president of the Institute for Public Relations. “Because of the influence of CCOs on what stakeholders, especially employees, see and hear from companies, this was great news. Also, the findings demonstrate the importance of communication having a seat at the table, as eight out of 10 respondents said the communication function was important or ‘very important’ to the company’s COVID-19 response.”
However, communicators will have to prove their worth and can’t rely on the crisis to make their value obvious. As McCorkindale pointed out, the 20% of respondents who said their communication function was not as important (moderately important to not at all important per the chart) could be “worrying.”
One reassuring sign from the report is that many communicators report a readiness to respond to the crisis. As much as 30% of respondents rated themselves as “very” prepared.
A majority even say their crisis plan accounts for a pandemic or health crisis scenario:
Nearly half (44%) of respondents said their crisis communication plan doesn’t cover an infectious disease outbreak. That, McCorkindale says, should be done immediately.
“If the communication function is not part of a cross-functional team or if there is not a cross-functional team, it’s time to join or put one together,” she says. “If an organization does not have a crisis plan (as 10% of our respondents said they did not) or if they have not updated it, this must be done immediately.”
As the crisis continues to rack up damage in the marketplace, leaders are stressing the importance of bold and immediate action. In McCorkindale’s words: “If companies are not communicating to their stakeholders, that must be done now.”
What does that action look like? McCorkindale says the top priority should be communicating the safety of stakeholders.
“Without a doubt, the safety and security of employees, customers, and other stakeholders is most critical,” she says. “Communicators should also make sure that steps at the company-level are being made that best protect these stakeholders and communication delivered to them must be proactive, clear, accurate, and current.”
Turning point for social media?
Communications leaders are turning away from social media for information about the crisis according to the report. Social media ranked at a mere 1 percent in a list of trusted sources.
“COVID-19 may have been the tipping point for Twitter, FB and other social platforms,” says Steve Cody, CEO and founder of Peppercomm and IPR chairman. “Seasoned communications professionals have always been wary of any ‘news’ or ‘information’ that pops up first on their social feeds (and will seldom engage until first verifying that the news being ‘reported’ is factual).”
For Cody, the pandemic might shift public attitudes around major platforms.
“In the aftermath of the hysterics, misinformation and disinformation being spread on multiple social media channels about COVID-19, I think it’s safe to say every major organization (and their public relations consultants) will be re-thinking the role social media should play in future campaigns,” he says.
However, communicators ignore the major social media platforms at their own risk. Though these thought leaders are changing their own information diets, many Americans still turn to social media for information about the crisis.
According to a flash poll conducted by G&S Communications, 51% of Americans say they are currently staying informed about coronavirus through friends or family. When looking for information sources, Americans also turn to Web searches (50%), content published by government sources (49%) and social media (40%).
Empowering your comms
When asked how much leeway communicators should get to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, Cody says that it depends based on how the crisis is impacting their organization.
“Those organizations that are in dire distress (airlines, cruise ships, resort destinations, etc.) have already empowered their communicators to do everything possible to mitigate fear and empathize with target audiences,” he says. “But most CCOs will continue to work in tandem with other members of the C-Suite throughout the crisis period to assure the right messages are being conveyed to the right audiences at the right time. “
As for who should be the leading voice on the crisis for your organization, the results from the IPR study are clear: it’s the CEO.
To see many of the other insights, and benchmark your own efforts, consult the full report.