With coronavirus cases rising across the globe, the accompanying sense of fear poses a serious threat to business.

Part One: Amid Misinformation, Trust Seen As Critical Factor For Coronavirus Comms Efforts

In China, where the disease originated and has had the biggest impact, 60% of companies are facing financial difficulties, according to state media, with more than 5% likely to go bankrupt. Research by the American Chamber of Commerce and Sandpiper Communications in Singapore reveals that more than 30% of chamber members surveyed see the virus greatly hurting their business in Asia-Pacific; around 40% expect their revenues for the year to be down by as much as 10%.

The survey found that most companies (45%) did not have a formal response plan in place in the event of a major disease outbreak, highlighting the challenge communications teams are currently facing. Many in the field are unlikely to have experienced a similar crisis before, and rather than being proactive, are simply trying to keep up with a constantly changing environment and “avoid making mistakes”, says Elan Shou, the Shanghai-based regional director of Ruder Finn.

The situation demands three key things of in-house PR practitioners, suggests Robert Magyar, executive director of North Head Communications in Beijing. They need to show the outside world that they are doing what they can to contain and combat the virus; communicate clearly internally and offer the necessary flexibility to help employees balance the situation with their work responsibilities; and where appropriate, convey to the public how their products and services can help people under the current circumstances.

So far, internal communications appear to have dominated the agenda. Katrina Andrews, managing partner of the Andrews Partnership, a recruiting firm specialising in PR, has held roundtables with senior communications professionals in Asia-Pacific periodically since the virus surfaced. She says external communications have “taken a back seat” and that the biggest concern is a major outbreak among staff, which has seen companies shifting support operations to other continents and scrambling either to implement remote working measures or devise infection prevention methods for retail staff.

Speaking on PRovoke Media’s podcast this week, Tori Cowley, group chief communications officer of the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEx), agreed that “it’s all about the internal audience at the moment”. From her perspective, it is a question of remaining “calm and considered” and being able to “balance speed with facts”.

“You cannot respond in a panicked or overly reactive way,” she said, noting that it is essential to “listen as well as tell” and “focus on what’s really important”. “Another thing we don’t talk about so often is how you can help out,” she added. “As an organisation we don’t always have a conscience for that, but I think it’s really valuable.”

Andrews says that, for those in charge of communications, a key challenge is instituting a “single source of truth” — a means of preventing the spread of rumours and confusion by centralising information internally. “Everyone we’ve spoken to has expended huge effort funnelling communications into a single channel that all staff can know is the most up-to-date source of information, whether it is email, SMS, Microsoft Teams, Yammer or another platform,” she says.

Most have opted for email as the most universally accessed channel, but one regional source at a multinational in Singapore says separately that messaging services such as WeChat have proved helpful in driving people to their emails.

A bigger issue, Andrews suggests, has been striking the right tone, which has meant a “constant recalibration process”. “This is the really impossible challenge, keeping staff up to date on all the latest measures, fulfilling that primary duty to be open and honest, and passing on life-critical information, while not bombarding staff to the extent you actually amplify the sense of crisis and create anxiety,” she says. “It means speaking with staff day after day, maintaining a real feel for what they’re going through. You’ve got to be really good at your job to do that.”

An improvement since the SARS crisis that Shou has seen is that communications teams are now working more closely with HR and operations, which reflects a wider trend in the industry irrespective of dealing with a crisis.

Magyar’s dealings with clients present a different perspective—that the top concern is not internal but the immediate loss of customers and realignment of customer preferences. FMCG giants including Coca-Cola have sought to reassure investors that the virus will not affect its performance in the long term, in spite of disruption, an issue that is likely to vex investor relations pros in the months ahead. 

A senior in-house practitioner at a corporate services provider in Hong Kong who asked to remain anonymous says she sees external communications becoming more important, with clients raising questions about matters including business continuity plans, office hours and service disruption.

Multinationals “need to ensure we are aligned across the organisation in how we respond to both employees and external stakeholders” and must strike a balance between “the messaging of maintaining service quality for our clients and the health and safety of our employees”.

In China, efforts by companies to move transactions online are challenged by regulations that change almost daily. Amid this additional upheaval, brands must exercise caution in their external communications.

“A brand should never overshadow the government in this critical situation, or over-promote itself,” Shou says. “Both can carry serious risks.”

The best approach for brands has been to communicate their efforts to improve things in whatever way makes sense for them. Hema, a food delivery company owned by Alibaba, launched an initiative to “share” restaurant staff who would otherwise not be working and put them to work on deliveries. This sort of thing “is highly appreciated by the government, companies and consumers,” says Shou. She sees brands benefiting from being seen as “supporters” rather than “heroes”.

Luxury groups, which have made a number of embarrassing cultural missteps in China in recent years, have announced donations of varying sizes to combat the virus, while individual brands such as Fendi have made empathetic gestures through messages of support to the nation.

In Singapore, Prudential called on people to refrain from discrimination, which has proliferated since the onset of the virus, and instead do their part to help. The company has claimed the video carries no commercial intent.

Any brand communications in a situation such as this are likely to come in for scrutiny, and overt opportunism is clearly unwise. A report by Reuter Communications in Shanghai gives the example of MAC, a beauty brand, which ran a social media competition around the theme of eye makeup and face masks. The effort aroused anger for its apparent lack of sensitivity and was soon taken down.

Misinformation has been less of a problem for corporations as for governments, although it does still present challenges. Andrews says: “We have seen an issue with anti-corporate misinformation—external social media or fake news claiming that one company or another is harbouring ‘infected’ cases inside their buildings.” This has required a rapid response whereby communications teams determine the facts and issue region-wide counter-messaging.

The upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics continues to take a buffeting too. Despite assurances from the organisers that it will go ahead as planned, fears of cancellation remain, stoked by comments such as those by IOC vice-president Richard Pound, who told the Associated Press such a move would be likely should the disease spread too far. Uncertainty as to the fate of the games prompted a dramatic fall in the share price of Dentsu, which has a big hand in managing the event.

Overall, observers are positive about the way companies have handled the situation from a communications standpoint up to this point, even if their activities have been for the most part reactive. The Singapore-based in-house source anticipates global headquarters at many multinationals taking control or at least becoming more involved as the virus becomes more prevalent in western countries. As they do, lessons learned from China are likely to be applicable globally.

Asked how companies can improve on their current level of activities, Vanessa Wu, Reuter Communications’ director of Europe, says the ultimate mistake would be to remain silent. To do so would be to be perceived as “running from China or insensitive to the situation”. External communications should adapt to the current sentiment, and as long as it is empathetic, content doesn’t have to be limited to things like aid donation.

“The situation will improve and China will bounce back,” Wu says. “When it does, your business needs to be ready and able to recover just as fast. After stringent travel restrictions, Chinese travellers will be keen to explore new horizons and visit new destinations. Plan your events, map out your key messages and campaigns, develop localised creative content. Use this time to train teams with new skills. Getting ready now will speed up a brand’s ability to capture the momentum quickly.”

Not everyone is so positive. Andrews wonders how communications professionals will find a way to sustain engagement internally [and presumably externally] if the situation drags on. Events have already been cancelled months into the future, she notes.

“Right now, there’s a sense of crisis spirit, so staff can make allowances for that big hole in their personal connection to the company. But what happens if that continues? How will communicators forge that link again? That’s the big unanswered question.”

Part One: Amid Misinformation, Trust Seen As Critical Factor For Coronavirus Comms Efforts