I’m doing this because there is just no way to predict if the Saskatchewan Health Region will name your business if it has had a run-in with the ‘Rona (aka COVID19,), whether through an employee testing positive or a customer later receiving a positive diagnosis. The result is thousands of Saskatchewan business owners, particularly small business’ owners, suffering incredible anxiety as the virus stalks their front door. And I feel for you.
I hope this provides some small comfort. This is not meant to override public health advice from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, nor is it perfect – I’m sure other comms strategists might offer different perspectives. Finally, these steps would require adaption to each organization’s unique circumstances.
With all that in mind, I think I’ve laid out a good jumping-off point.
With or without COVID19, your business or organization should have a crisis communications plan detailing some of the following and more:
- Potential crisis scenarios – internal and external, from destruction by natural disaster to bad publicity;
- Your spokesperson, which should be the individual who best represents your company and who can speak eloquently on its behalf to the media;
- A crisis response team and a brief description of their roles: who will be responsible for writing news releases? For getting that news released adapted and posted on social media – who will manage your socials? How often and where will you meet or communicate in the first 24 and 72 hours, and then in the days and weeks after that? How will you avoid information hoarding (it’s totally a thing, I’ll tell you some other time)?
- An updated external communications contact list – who are stakeholders in your business and what would they need to know? Ie. your landlord, your advertising reps etc.
Anyhoo, let’s focus specifically on COVID19, operating under the assumption that the Saskatchewan Health Region has named your business in a public health advisory.
- Conduct a risk assessment of your business. Identify existing and potential COVID19 risks to your staff and clients and then document and implement the correlating measures to reduce, mitigate or eliminate those risks. For more on this process, you can check out these handy guidelines produced by the Government of Canada. Most of you have already done this, but if not, it’s not too late.
- As an extension of the above, document clear protocols for masks, social distancing, hand washing and sanitization, and post them for both for employees and for clients/customers. Post those protocols where both your staff and customers can see them to communicate your transparency and commitment to protecting everybody’s health. Invest in a local graphic artist to help with creating these visuals, if possible, or you can use these from the Saskatchewan government.
- Use social media to amplify what you’re doing in relation to the two steps detailed above, ie. pictures and posts detailing how you are supporting your staff, your clients and community.
- If your risk assessment reveals the need for appointment cancellations or shipping or production delays, ensure those contact details are easy to access (remotely, ideally) and the process for communicating with them is well-documented, including who will be responsible for doing so.
- Conduct any required additional training for backups to staff who are key to the continuity of your business, including yourself as owner/operator – in addition to having to handle a public health advisory, you might be dealing with 14-day quarantine(s).
- Ensure your PPE stock is ready not just for the current community-transition scenario, but for the worst-case community-transition scenario – meaning buy paper masks. A lot of them.
- Brief your employees on their right to a safe workplace, but also your right to run a safe workplace and how they can protect it – and thereby their jobs. Visit WorkSafe Saskatchewan or if your employees are unionized, speak to their union about communicating and adhering to the law and best practices in your industry.
- Stick to short-term planning. Consider avoiding promotions or ad campaigns if community transmission is increasing in your region, or at least ensure there’s a quick and easy off-ramp for both.
Shit. You did everything you could correctly, but a positive diagnosis has still been publicly connected by SHA to your business. Right now, that could happen to any business and any owner in Saskatchewan, meaning your circumstances are easy to empathize with and relatable – make sure your response is too.
- Co-operate with Saskatchewan public health authorities, but do not hesitate to go further than their instructions to stop any leaking of public confidence in your business.
- Be kind, sympathetic and supportive of your COVID19+ employee, if one is involved. Ensure they understand they’re not losing their job. This document from the Government of Saskatchewan is unwieldly, but does contain quite a bit of detail on what you and your employee can and should do next.
- Advise, preferably not in an email but over the phone or Facetime/Zoom, each person who was in close contact with the positive case without revealing that person or employee’s identity. I don’t care if everyone knows who it is, work hard to respect their privacy – and the laws respecting their right to privacy. If people who had close-contact are in the workplace when you learn of a positive diagnosis, support getting them home as quickly as possibly and advise them to contact 811 or their doctor right away. Once those individuals are dealt with, call an all-staff meeting, or if that’s not possible, send an email, calmly stating the facts (again, respecting privacy) and next steps.
- Immediately shutdown any pre-scheduled social media content.
- Ensure any appointments, shipments or bookings impacted by your closure are contacted immediately with a plan for refund or rescheduling – try to avoid any situation where an impacted client hears about your business in the media or on social media.
- Close and disinfect your operation – or, just the part of your operation impacted by exposure, if it’s in a separate space with low traffic between it and others. Use professionals or these CDC guidelines, even if it’s not a public health requirement. This is my advice, not Saskatchewan Health Authority’s, but in my opinion, DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP – it’s not worth it. I know, you can’t afford to lose more revenue, and I’m so sorry if this happens to you… but you’ll lose even more if you drain away a portion of your client base permanently because they’ve lost confidence in your ability to keep them safe.
- As soon as you’ve got steps 2 through 6 are underway, broadcast your closure and cleaning plan – and specifically, the date and time you will be reopen and back to business, even if it’s only a day or two – by promptly sending a news release to local media and simultaneously posting the same information on your social media channels. You may also need external signage on your business. It can take as few as five or ten minutes for a media outlet to start sharing the information, so you really want to get the timing right here, while also avoiding delays.
- If a reporter contacts you before you have time to issue a news release or even get your plan moving – stay calm and shut your mouth. Simply ask the reporter, respectfully and kindly, to explain what led him or her to call you, or to share whatever background information they have (they’re not obligated to do so, but they need and want an informed quote so they’ll typically help you out in this regard). Regardless, do not offer any comment right away, just obtain the information and advise the reporter when you will return his or her call – and then do so. Return reporters’ calls in the order they were received, or if they all come in within a short period of time, respond with prompt delivery to all outlets of the news release mentioned in point 7.
- Co-operate with local media – embrace them, in fact, as a free, effective tool to speak to your existing and even potential clients. Remember that the reporter has no personal stake involved in the outcome of the story – they’re just doing their job. Be calm, direct and stick to the facts – this happened, you’re fixing it. Apologize for any inconvenience to your clients/customers and make clear the date you’ll be back to business as usual.
A few other Dos and Donts:
DO NOT try to explain in detail or apologize for the positive diagnosis itself (apologizing for the inconvenience to others is appropriate).
DO detail publicly (ie on your socials) any lessons-learned or additional controls established as a result. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather purchase the goods and services at a business that has overcome and moved on from an unfortunate positive diagnosis than one where I question their commitment to prevention of transmission in the first place.
DO, during your shutdown period, host a live story, post short videos or conduct a scheduled question and answer session on social media. Use this opportunity to communicate and reinforce your business values, building on your positive relationship with the community while showcasing your mindfulness and good intentions.
Congratulations – you made it to the other side! And you will. To quote one of my favorite movies, “this too shall pass”.
- This will be so important for both your mental health and that of your staff: recognize and don’t resist the idea that no matter how well you manage public relations, your non-essential service or product might not be the most important priority for people, and that a positive COVID19 case connected to your business might slow it down again, albeit briefly. If this happens, ramp up alternate content on your socials – for example, focus on offering advice instead of selling.
- Avoid further jubilant social posts, news releases or pitches to local media about your reopening, which would be super tone-deaf, especially when everyone else is still dealing with the crisis.
- Continue to be vulnerable in your messaging. As a business owner, it’s okay to ask your customers to continue to support you after a COVID19 crisis, and to keep buying your fabulous products or services. Sensitive and honest messaging will be supported by the community, I promise you.
- Monitor what’s being said about your business in the media and on socials – you should be doing this anyway, but in the wake of a crisis it’s especially important, so assign this job to someone else if you don’t have time as owner. Ask them monitor the social channels of news organizations, specifically the comments under any stories involving your business. You may identify an area where you need to massage, tweak or amplify your own messaging in response.
- DO NOT take to your socials to respond to the inevitable trolls who will use the opportunity to do what they do best – troll. Do not blast your community if you feel you’re not getting the support you should after you’ve gotten back to business as usual. DO stay positive.
Again, I want to reinforce this is only communications strategy and advice, which I’m basing on extensive research into best practice and case studies across both North America and Europe, as well as my COVID19 experiences to-date with clients. Nobody knows your business better than you do – tempering what I’ve detailed above with your instincts and experience is crucial.
Finally, I haven’t got into what to do if your business has a run in with COVID19, but no public advisory is issued by the Saskatchewan Health Authority, because there would just be too many unique factors (ie. urban vs rural, size and nature of your business) in play for me to provide advice on what, if anything, should be said publicly.
What I can tell you is this: the truth will always set you free. Doing what’s right and doing it transparently should always be your first step, no matter what.
Good luck out there my friends, and feel free to email me with any questions or post your comments below. Talk soon, Tam
I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Feel free to email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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