Author, Steve Michelson & Jackson Stiles

No matter what industry you work in, Coronavirus should now factor into your communications strategy.

The spread of the virus, now officially known as COVID-19, is first and foremost a human tragedy. As at the time of publication, there are more than 92,000 cases of Coronavirus across the world with over 3,000 deaths.

It also has significant implications for business conditions globally and locally with six more cases of Coronavirus confirmed overnight in NSW with forty members at a Sydney hospital isolated amid fears of contagion. Some top ASX companies are now advising their employees of domestic and international travel restrictions.

It’s no surprise then that Australia’s central bank, the Reserve Bank, cut the official interest rate yesterday to a new record level of 0.5 per cent to help offset the now significant impacts of Coronavirus on our economy. The interest rate is now lower than it ever was during the Global Financial Crisis, and just one more rate cut away from triggering US-style drastic fiscal measures – such as massive bond buying.

Australian and global share markets are in turmoil. Consumers are emptying supermarket shelves in panic buying mode. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in doubt.

Global output will fall by an estimated US$1 trillion as a result of China’s drop in manufacturing, exports and consumption, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Your marketing, PR and communications plans must now adapt with these changes. This is the new normal, with predictions that August 2020 may be the most dangerous period as Coronavirus infections grow in Australia.

The advice of Banksia Strategic Partners is to communicate strong, decisive and timely action wherever possible.

Monitor actively

As a first step, you will want to closely monitor all communications from key government agencies and health bodies including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the CDC, and consider how your communications can assist or respond. Ensuring you identify risks before they evolve into your problems for your organisation is critical.

Thorough monitoring can also help to identify opportunities to educate and reassure your stakeholders and to this end you should also pay close attention to your internal audiences. More on that below.

Respond quickly

In particular, if your company finds itself with employees adversely impacted by Coronavirus then strong internal and external communications is critical to help minimise negative commercial impacts of infection. Think Carnival’s Diamond Princess cruise liner which is now docked in a Japanese port, after thousands of passengers were quarantined.

In the event your organisation is impacted we suggest your holding statement contain the following three key points:

1. We are aware of the developing situation.
2. We have established an internal taskforce to actively monitor the virus.
3. We will keep our customers, employees and stakeholders informed as we know more and respond accordingly.

Be proactive

Given the scale of Coronavirus impacts in Australia, your organisation should also consider proactive communications to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and a commitment to your customers.

For example, you could consider announcing where appropriate:

1. Fee waivers.
2. Discounts.
3. Donations to aid relief.

Remember internal audiences

Communicating to employees may be most important. Alleviate fears by showing you are handling the situation.

For example, you might announce your office will be disinfected daily,  institute a remote work plan, and address the impact on staff without leave entitlements.

Tone is important. Your communications should be decisive but not panicked. Project calm and confidence.

Seek expert advice

Finally, if you are in a highly affected industry or industry that is likely to be impacted, seek immediate and external crisis communications support.

You’ll want the advice of experts, both to help develop a first response strategy and to get a second opinion.

Steve Michelson, Founder and Managing Director of Banksia, is a former lawyer and strategic communications expert who has advised a range of corporate leaders, senior politicians and public servants on complex communications issues. Jackson Stiles is a former national journalist and editor and senior strategic communications consultant at Banksia.

For more information or to discuss your organisation’s communications response to the Coronavirus outbreak please contact Banksia Senior Associate Jackson Stiles on 0447 061 023.