Communicating during the coronavirus epidemic

Communicating during the coronavirus epidemic

Corporate affairs, emergency media relations practitioner and former journalist Reuben Aitchison, has recently joined Telum Media in Melbourne. Today he writes on communications best practice and advice for business and practitioners during an unfolding and ongoing crisis.

As it spreads, it mutates, taking on pieces of each host, sometimes intentionally, before spreading further. And so it becomes more virulent, more dangerous. I’m not talking the coronavirus here, I’m talking the rumour, misinformation (factual whoopsies) and disinformation (deliberate fake news or innuendo) about the coronavirus that is running rampant across social (and occasionally, traditional) media.

Fake news overtaking the truth in a crisis
A tweet appeared on 4th February that has since gone a bit viral in itself, showing a map created by a Twitter user comparing the spread of the coronavirus with rumours and panic about the virus.

And there is a ton of information out there, from the weird (an article on where to sit on a plane to avoid catching the virus) to the downright woeful, like this fake government media release in Queensland.

At an official level, there’s some great (and smart) work being done to help combat the misinformation, a particular health hazard in itself. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, has posted a series of shareable infographics and images to directly refute some of the unhelpful rumours doing the rounds, such as one debunking the myth that slathering yourself in sesame oil will help prevent you getting sick. In the United States, the National Press Club Journalism Institute is running an educational panel session for writers and journalists on how to responsibly and proactively cover the coronavirus epidemic.

For brands and organisations affected by (or perceived to be affected by) the epidemic, or the resulting xenophobia being fuelled by that rumour and misinformation, the advice from leading practitioners is pretty clear.

Communicating to your business during a crisis
In an article from PR Week, senior agency and in-house communications leads were unanimous that employee health and wellbeing comes first. Be transparent - keep your people informed, with simple, factual information from verifiable andreliable sources. It’s worth taking a look at broader crisis communication principles here, noting that being transparent doesn’t always mean full disclosure. Full transparency should mean telling your audience (internally or externally):
  • What you do know;
  • What you don’t know;
  • What you can’t say;
  • Why you can’t say it; and
  • When you will follow up.
Tread carefully when communicating externally
From an external perspective, countering and refuting any disinformation or misinformation about your brand that has the potential to harm your people, customers or reputation should again be simple and factual, avoiding opinion or speculation. Using facts from, and referencing, respected and impartial organisations and bodies helps get over any doubts or biases about your organisation’s capabilities, expertise or motivations.

It’s not always malicious disinformation or attacks on a brand that draw organisations into responding. You have to feel sorry for the PR team at Corona beer owner Constellation Brands, who felt compelled to issue a statement following a surge in people Googling “Corona beer virus”, saying only that, “We believe, by and large, that consumers understand there's no linkage between the virus and our business."

Every crisis presents an opportunity (maybe)
When it comes to promotional PR during times of crisis, there is no shortage of gaffes to learn from, where brands have been lambasted for opportunism or lack of judgment. For some, however, it is perfectly in keeping with their brand’s values and may be appropriate to the circumstances. Swisse Wellness, for example, has a sizable workforce in China, an important market for them, and a key part of its branding is providing timely tips and advice on exercise, nutrition and mindfulness. A LinkedIn post this week sharing good wishes and providing tips for staying fit and healthy while indoors aligns with what the brand is about and is known for.

Have a plan, don’t plan to plan
On a final note, it was somewhat disheartening, though not surprising, to see details of research conducted late last year by PRNEWS and CS&A showing that a third of companies don’t have crisis plans, only half of those that do have them are up to date and more than a third of all respondent firms had never conducted a crisis exercise.

Have a plan, practice it, and during a crisis, communicate clearly and decisively, ensuring timeliness, veracity, empathy and alignment to your brand.

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