What coronavirus reminds us about communications

March 2020 | By Brian Heffron

When COVID-19 hit the U.S,  Life Care Center outside Seattle was ground zero. More than 25 residents at the long-term care facility died and nearly 50 employees have tested positive. But as the clinical team cared for the sick around the clock it was a series of communications missteps that threatened the organization.

A call to one woman at 3:30 in the morning illustrated the problem. She was told her mother, a resident at Life Care Center, had just died from the virus. A dreadful middle-of-the-night call. Seven hours later, though, she was told her mother was fine. The woman refused to blame the overworked, exhausted staffer but families said this was not an isolated incident. Communications were sparse and often contradictory.

The center was in uncharted waters, battling an unfamiliar, deadly virus aggressively targeting its residents. The team tried to satisfy the demand for information but it was nearly impossible. Hot embers – confusion, fear, conflicting information, anger, a vocal audience feeling ignored and TV cameras at the ready – fueled an out-of-control crisis.

A global pandemic poses an extreme and rare test, no question. But the challenges Life Care Center faced are representative of the ones any business deals with in a crisis. What are some of the communications lessons the COVID-19 experience reinforces?

  • Prep like your business depends on it. Because it does. Most organizations are going to face a threat to reputation and business at some point. So prepare. Invest the time and resources to identify all the potential threats – manmade or natural – and plan for them. Build a playbook and rehearse.
  • Fix the problem. No one expects a nursing home, an airline or a school to cure a pandemic. But they do expect you to adjust your practices. Saying the right thing is just one piece of crisis response. The most important element is correcting what’s in your control and assuring your stakeholders and the public that the right steps have been taken.
  • Talk to your people. Don’t keep employees and customers in the dark as you investigate. Over-communicate with the people you deal with in normal circumstances and give them a venue to get and share answers. In the case of Life Care Center that’s the families. Your internal audience and loyal customers can be your best advocates in times of trouble. But if you keep them in the dark, their dissatisfaction will be loud, credible and painful.
  • Be honest about what you know and what you don’t.  In most crises, information is fluid. That’s especially the case when there is a public health emergency that has the world’s top medical minds stumped and most every business paralyzed. Just be honest about the facts and promise to keep them updated when more information becomes available. And then follow through.
  • Use the right channels. We tried explaining to our youngest son why playdates and sleepovers were a bad idea for now. But it wasn’t until some influencer on TikTok said the same thing that he got the message. Just as you would market to different audiences on different channels make sure you have an approach to tailor the right message to the right people at the right time on the right channel. Speak to them where they are and where they’re most receptive.
  • Be consistent and relevant. Over the last week we’ve received dozens of updates from school, work, the airline, the obscure online retailer and the vendor that usually ends up in your Spam folder. Some were helpful, consistently on point and others were tone-deaf. Don’t send me an email about “measures to ensure your safety” followed by an offer for 25% off.  Ask yourself what your audience needs and wants to hear from you at this point. Create some separation between crisis response and overt marketing.

When he was quarantined during a plague that struck London, it’s said that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. You’re probably not going to create any enduring classics during your own “social distancing” period but we can use it as a reminder about how to talk to people when crisis strikes.

See our work.

Partner with us.

See our work.

Partner with us.