Even as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, critical examinations about how companies and other organizations are responding to the crisis have already begun. Looking ahead, ongoing scrutiny may come from the newly formed U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, federal or state regulatory agencies, investigative media reporting, inside “whistleblowers,” or organic concerns from the public at large.
Identifying the reputation and public affairs risks that could be created by having a spotlight put on your organization’s actions around COVID-19 is something every business needs to be working on. Here are three things you should be doing now to prepare for potential scrutiny:
1. There’s still time to take action and help insulate yourself from potential risk areas. If there are any areas where you’ve already identified shortcomings, act now to address them. No organization has responded to the pandemic perfectly, and good faith efforts to address an issue are always better late than never. Ignoring a problem and hoping no one notices—or worse, actively trying to sweep it under the rug—is the worst possible response.
2. Create an independent team dedicated to looking back at your response. The focus for nearly every organization must continue to be on helping mitigate the immediate impacts of the pandemic. But by carving out a small group—perhaps just one or two internal point people, supported by an external communications, public affairs, and legal team—you can be prepared for what lies ahead even as the vast majority of your staff continues to concentrate on the immediate tasks at hand.
3. Begin creating a comprehensive plan now. Mapping out multiple scenarios and having a detailed communications playbook for each of them is essential to ensuring your team isn’t caught flatfooted in the weeks and months ahead. While these playbooks should include all the standard elements of a communications plan (core messaging, talking points, Q&As, internal team responsibilities, etc.), companies should also be looking to get further ahead in their preparation now than usual contingency planning might call for. This may include actions such as conducting white-labeled polling and message testing to assess attitudes towards any potential risk areas and identify messaging that resonates and could counter any attacks.
This planning should also consider not only what your organization did, but also what it did not do—and also look outside your own organization and consider the actions (and again, omissions) of vendors, suppliers, and other partners. And while communications must be a key element of your planning, it can’t happen in a vacuum; your business leads, legal counsel, government affairs and other key stakeholders must also be aligned with your communications approach.
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