The Consequence of Communications in a Crisis

When is communications ever going to be more important than during a crisis?  Never.  What we’ve been experiencing throughout this pandemic has been compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918, but mass communications and global travel have placed COVID-19 in a league of its own. Never has there been a time when the message has been so critical.

Adapting accordingly

Let’s look at essential services first.  While much of the economy shut down, the wheels continued to turn at those companies deemed essential, but they had to re-invent the way they functioned.  Those on the corporate side of business were forced to change their procedures practically overnight and team dynamics were hugely affected as they made some massive adjustments.  Staff found themselves working from home and/or doing revolving/part-time on-site work. The prevalence of online communications has made this transition relatively smooth. Imagine the disruption had this happened forty years ago,when much of communication among staff required actual human contact. The disruption to business would have been immeasurable. Nevertheless, many necessary adjustments are being made. And communicating change requires messages from management that demonstrate patience, flexibility, trust and, above all, calm, to enable business to continue as effectively as possible.  

When communications breakdown

When it comes to those working in essential services on the product side - providing food, prescriptions, toiletries, for some, alcohol - effective communications has been a matter of life and death. Before goods reach the stores, they need to be produced.  Manufacturing facilities have huge challenges, given the physical closeness of employees in the plants, contact with the products and, in some circumstances, the issue of a language barrier among many of their workers. Transparency has to be the number one concern, especially regarding the health and safety of employees.  By all accounts, the situation with Cargill Ltd - such an important component in this country’s meat industry - spiraled out of control because of a breakdown in effective communications between management, employees, and the union.   The safety measures were put in place under the guidance of public health authorities, but they apparently weren’t communicated adequately to employees. This communication breakdown inevitably spilled over to the community and the broader public with their lack of effective response to media requests. (To that in a minute.)

Respect your employees

Recognizing that companies don’t want to cause any unnecessary discontent or unease, they still need to keep employees in the loop whenever possible.  Too often companies put forth key announcements publicly that haven’t been shared with employees. It’s a kick in the teeth and a sign of disrespect for employees to hear about their own company, and issues that affect them directly, through the media - or even through a company-wide announcement, when an issue demands direct communication from the employee’s division head first. During a crisis or period of significant change, business leaders need to be even more cognizant of informing their employees of key initiatives and changes, or morale will be adversely affected.  

For retail companies the key to internal communications during this pandemic has been keeping their employees, who are essentially putting their own health at risk dealing directly with customers, informed about safety measures and updated regularly as events unfold.  Showing appreciation for the staff’s service can also go a long way to keep these employees in the trenches and motivated.  

Transparency or else

Organizations also need to be equally transparent with the public.  In a crisis, reputations are made or broken based on transparency.  If the public is kept in the dark about a critical issue, the media will be relentless in the search for answers. People will understand if you don’t have all the answers immediately, but the expectation is that you will share those answers as soon as you are able. How companies announce news is also critical.  It’s important to cover all platforms – traditional and social media and digital communications – with consistent messaging.

It’s hard to deny that the biggest communications blunder through this pandemic has been around our long-term care facilities and with devastating results. There have been very well-publicized concerns about the lack of accurate information - both internally and externally - regarding what has actually been occurring in these homes on a day-to day basis. These significant communication breakdowns have had a direct impact on the numbers of affected residents and staff.  In early May, out of 14 countries measured, Canada had the worst percentage of fatalities at long term care facilities and, as of May 7th, 82% of all deaths in this country were at those facilities. These numbers are profound and, despite the recent changes being made to improve transparency, the mistakes cannot be undone.

When communication works

On a bright note, there is one very important aspect of this crisis for which circumstances are better than expected - our healthcare system.  Our hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed with pandemic-related patients, as was originally feared, and experienced in Italy. Part of the reason is the effectiveness of communications on the part of our political and health care leaders. They told us clearly and repeatedly to stay home and practice social distancing, and we listened.

My final point pertains to those leaders.  During a crisis - in this case, one that significantly affects the entire country (the whole world, for that matter) - the strength of government leadership at all levels has a huge impact on the fallout. Effective communications makes the difference between public compliance and perseverance, or resistance and even panic.  The leaders at the three levels of government for Torontonians - Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford and John Tory - as well as top health-care officials such as Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer - have earned public confidence throughout the pandemic by providing regular, direct communications, promising transparency and seeming empathetic, calm and responsive.  (Mistakes have been made - inescapable in such a volatile, ever-evolving and complex situation - but even then, these public officials have held fast with unwavering leadership.) In contrast, some opposition leaders who have chosen to criticize rather than support government efforts have paid the price with diminished popularity.

The only constant is change.  In a world where the methods of communications evolve to keep us connected (can we even imagine a world without the internet, phones, television, radio, and newspapers?!), the message today is vital to our well-being.  

Susan Rogers Executive Recruitment provides search and recruitment services to connect companies with top Communications, Public Relations and Public Affairs experts.

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