Research indicates that when the coronavirus struck, at least 26% of U.S. businesses had no written plan for business continuity or crisis management. Perhaps yours is among them. Or perhaps your company has a management plan that is being tested by events not seen since the pandemic of 1918.
Whatever your state of readiness, every business has at least three crucial opportunities to regain some equilibrium, build resilience, and emerge ready to compete. These are lessons I’ve learned and shared in my work as a business continuity and crisis communication consultant.
Opportunity #1: Every business needs a plan. If you have a plan, use it but be open-minded to new challenges and solutions as they emerge. If your company was unprepared, improvise — help yourself until you can get better help.
Professional or trade associations may offer basic planning templates and general advice. Additionally, Arkansas is blessed with a small but talented community of subject matter experts who can deliver immediate tactical support plus guidance for the longer-term.
Opportunity #2: Communicate (overcommunicate) with stakeholder audiences. As you do this, remember country star Toby Keith’s song, “I wanna talk about me.” He speaks for every audience and stakeholder. Meet stakeholders where they are. Use their vocabulary and preferred means of communication; focus on their concerns and values. This can be harder than it sounds, and it’s worth the effort.
Opportunity #3: Be engaged in the community. Even if you’re shut down, your skills can help others, enhance your company’s reputation, and lead to greater business resilience.
Let’s drill into these latter points.
Your employees, customers or clients, suppliers, and even regulators are thirsty for useful information to manage their affairs. Despite many differences, they share a relationship with you. Strengthen their trust with straight talk about what you can do for them in these changing circumstances.
We typically think “customers first” but employees are the first audience for change because they must fulfill every commitment we make to other stakeholders.
Every employee’s first question will be, “How does this change affect me?” Lacking this information, most of us struggle to embrace change. Address their personal concerns first, and most people will change with you.
Also be transparent and empathetic about the human aspects of this issue. Two examples:
On Day 1 of her organization’s shutdown, one regional CEO told employees, “We are learning … we will make mistakes [and] together will succeed.” She confided that her family had discussed their concerns and fears, and encouraged employees to be mindful and supportive to ease one another’s fears. Then she segued into a list of big steps required in coming days. Response has been strongly positive.
My office neighbors Nate Tilley and Andrew Stephens are residential appraisers who reassure anxious customers by asking them to open all doors and turn on lights. This means their gloved hands don’t touch anything in the home. This simple empathetic message supports public health, lets them keep working, and aids the local economy.
Be in the Community
Creative thinking will reveal opportunities to use our business skills to help the community. Quick examples from recent days:
An idled business manager with whom I’m acquainted used her organizational skills to develop a grassroots network of friends and associates. They aid others who are homebound due to age, health, or out-of-school children. Their “need 1, take 1; got 1, give 1” strategy helps others obtain food, sanitizers and cleaners, baby products, and other basic needs.
As bars close, several boutique distilleries have begun mixing their grain alcohol with gel to make hand sanitizer. They donate this homebrew to community service agencies, and are repaid through brand reputation that can speed business recovery when this crisis eases.
None of us can know how severe or long-lived the pandemic will be. With thoughtful planning, communication, and ingenuity, we can buffer its impact on our families, communities, and businesses.
What’s your plan?
Editor’s note: Ted Wagnon of Little Rock is managing director of Wagnon Strategies, a communication consultancy whose specialties include business continuity, risk/reputation management, crisis planning, and social impact initiatives.