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Crisis brings opportunity to fight fear with clear communication

Here’s some irony. Just days before COVID-19 came on our radar, I was enrolling in a program at the Harvard School of Public Health called Applied Risk Communication for the 21st century.

Here’s some irony. Just days before COVID-19 came on our radar, I was enrolling in a program at the Harvard School of Public Health called Applied Risk Communication for the 21st century. I wanted to learn how to manage communication through a public health crisis.

So, here I am doing it for real – trial by fire, if you will. As a longtime client said to me, “This is your time.”

While I wish my time was under different circumstances, I see crisis as an opportunity to help clients demonstrate leadership.

In this pandemic, the fundamentals, protocols and best practices of crisis communication still apply – with trust, empathy and action being more important than ever. But COVID-19 has introduced a novel element to crisis communication, and that is managing the psychology of a pandemic, namely, fear of the unknown.

While I can’t reveal specifics about my clients, I’ve counselled them that one way to manage fears among employees and customers is through risk communication, something companies often overlook or ignore because they don’t want to be vulnerable.

However, I’ve told my clients there is power in vulnerability because it makes them relatable. And if they communicate from that position quickly, clearly and honestly, they can remove the unknown and create certainty for their community – even if the news is uncomfortable – allowing people to make informed decisions about their health and future.

I’ve watched two companies communicate risk differently, one for the better and one for the worst. (Neither of them is my client).

Let’s start with the worst. Like other gyms, one fitness chain informed staff and members that it was closing its facilities “temporarily” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In initial emails, the ownership told staff they would be paid through the temporary closure. However, in subsequent emails, the ownership announced it was closing the gyms permanently and terminating staff. What’s more, the ownership reneged on its commitment to pay employees during the temporary closure period and has apparently filed for bankruptcy, which throws staff compensation further into question.

Ambiguous, confusing and contradictory communication amplifies fear and uncertainty, and the decisions of the chain will certainly lead to judicial actions against them.

On the other hand, Loblaws executive chairman Galen Weston, has been a champion communicator through COVID-19. Loblaws owns grocery and drug stores, which are essential services used by all Canadians.

Weston has remained agile, continuing to assess risk, take appropriate action and communicate with Canadians – taking us from the unknown to the known. In fact, even before Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, Weston calmed our worst fears.

Using his company’s website and social media channels, Weston said: “First and foremost. Do not worry. We are not running out of food or essential supplies. Our supply chain and store teams are responding to the spikes in volume and quickly getting the most important items back on the shelf.”

During no time in modern history have companies been required to be more informed, agile or communicative. I’ve been helping clients get over their resistance to “over-communicate,” persuading them that their community needs to hear from them now to understand their future and adapt accordingly.

Companies fear they may appear indecisive or misinformed if they change their messages, but this is a dynamic situation that changes daily, and as such, messages must pivot to provide the best current view, without compromising the company legally. The bottom line is that how a company responds to its community today will preserve its reputation tomorrow.

As for me, once travel opens again, Harvard, here I come. •

Renu Bakshi ([email protected]) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis audits, crisis management and media training.