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Communications Playbook for Essential Businesses during COVID-19

• April 15, 2020

While most businesses across the country are shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been deemed essential by government officials and remain open to ensure critical goods and services continue to be available. But these designations have not been without controversy, with some organizations facing scrutiny about whether their work is truly essential, and whether the safety measures they’ve put in place are adequate to protect their employees and customers.

At Rational 360, we’re currently working with a number of clients across industries that are facing these challenges. Our team of communications and public affairs experts has developed a comprehensive playbook for essential businesses to communicate effectively about their operations. Here are three of our top insights for leaders that we recently shared in a memo to select Rational 360 clients:

1. Ensure every communication reemphasizes that the health and safety of employees and customers is the number one priority – and have the substance to back it up.

It doesn’t matter how essential you are if you can’t keep people healthy. It’s a simple truth, and it’s why a message emphasizing a commitment to health and safety must be shared early and often. It’s also critical that this message be pushed to internal and outside audiences; while external activists and the media can’t force you to make changes or shut down, they can influence the audiences who do hold that power: your employee population, the customers who purchase your goods and services, and government regulators.

Any company can put out a statement about the steps they’ve taken—but is it prepared to walk a skeptical reporter through its entire facility so they can see those measures up close? This is the standard companies must hold themselves to if they want to earn the public trust (not to mention the trust of their employees). Rather than being reactive on this front, organizations should proactively create rich-media assets—such as short live videos, animations, and infographics—that show, rather than tell, the steps that have been taken to keep people safe.

Part of this substance is also sharing your appreciation of your employees loudly and proudly. Many companies have rewarded employees with ‘appreciation bonus pay’ and other tangible efforts—but even creating communication assets to reinforce employee morale and public sentiment can go a long ways towards enhancing your credibility on workforce health and safety.

2. Perceptions about safety and essentialness matter just as much as substance.

Companies have had to respond fast to the evolving nature of the pandemic and the recommendations made by public health officials. While the speed of the change in our everyday lives created the mental space for forgiveness of many early ad hoc response and mitigation efforts, that ‘honeymoon phase’ has ended. Today, stakeholder expectations are much higher, much less forgiving, and much more skeptical of what they hear and see.

As a result, ensuring new health-related changes align with or exceed public health requirements must remain the primary objective, it is nearly as important that those measures look and sound safe, even to a casual observer. Plastic sheeting freshly taped to the ceiling to help separate customers from employees across the counter may technically meet CDC guidelines, but if it looks weak and flimsy, it won’t inspire confidence in your stakeholders and is likely to invite scrutiny. Similarly, while a business may have been deemed essential by public authorities, if its mission isn’t immediately obvious to the average Jane, the organization is likely to eventually face skepticism about the real need for its continued operation; this leads to our third insight:

3. The best way to neutralize skeptics of essentialness is storytelling that blends macro-level data with individual-level anecdotes.

Chances are, your company has data that shows how much more your customers are relying on you during this time—and this is the time to deploy it. If you don’t, tools such as digital polling can be used to rapidly gather it.

Media organizations are hungry for these data trend stories; last week The New York Times published at least three in a 24-hour period: a story on how seismometers built to detect earthquakes have detected a measurable decrease in human activity, a piece about data that showed declines in electricity usage, and a story about the surge in the volume of old-fashioned phone calls. Building a similar narrative around your data can provide opportunities for positive and proactive media engagement.

But while macro-level statistics like these are often insightful, by themselves they lack the human element that’s critical for building personal, emotive connections and creating a genuine sense of essentialness. Identifying even a handful of stories about how your essential operations have made a critical difference in the life of a customer can bring the data to life. Even if you haven’t already collected your own customer impact stories, you may be able to identify examples through media reporting or other sources. When your data and the stories of your customer base are combined, your company will be well equipped to communicate about your essential mission with all of your key stakeholders.

To learn more about the communications playbook we’ve shared with clients to help the leading companies they run manage these challenging times, send us an email today.

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