Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: Michele Spatari / AFP
Health workers fill out documents before performing tests for Covid-19 at the screening and testing tents set up at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: Michele Spatari / AFP

Companies navigating the Covid-19 lockdown should be careful of possible impacts on their reputation — whether due to failure to deliver goods and services, or an inadvertent violation of regulations that are changing regularly or are simply opaque.

Leading local public relations company Reputation Matters has published a useful primer to assist companies in these uncharted waters.

Says agency founder and MD Regine le Roux: "In an ideal world, everyone would already have a crisis communication plan, based on scenario planning, with a line of command in place. The plan needs to include who the key stakeholders are that need to be communicated with, which media channels should be used for communication and … what the key messages need to be."

Many organisations appear to have been caught on the back foot when the lockdown regulations were announced, and few, if any, had a plan in place. Le Roux says it’s not too late.

"Most importantly, show empathy. Whenever there is a crisis, people are impacted and we need to remember we are dealing with human beings who are each coping in a different way. Be sure to acknowledge and highlight that in any communication." Timeous communication is also important, she advises, and the old PR saying that speculation fills a vacuum has never been more apt.

"Keep all stakeholders updated. The SA government’s response to Covid-19 has been a prime example of how it should be done, keeping the public up to date with the situation and what still needs to happen," she says.

"Regular communication directly from the president not only ensures that the public feels safe, but they also know that they can trust the information because it is communicated from the most reliable source. Because of the government’s consistent and proactive communication, most South Africans are contributing and committed to flattening the curve."

Whether a company is communicating to staff or to external parties, Le Roux has this critical advice: "Stick to your guns. The message needs to be clear and consistent. If you say something, stick to it. For the most part, the official pandemic messaging has been consistent."

Le Roux believes both the public and private sector can take a leaf from the millennial generation’s book. "Millennials prefer communication to be brief but meaningful and engaging. The entire world is influenced by the pandemic, and we should not only communicate in a respectful manner, but also respect the measures the government has put in place to protect businesses and limit the spread of this virus. Also respect the fact that different generations have different communication preferences."

PwC, in a note to clients, says a crisis like Covid-19 can have an effect on every part of the business. "Senior-level oversight and internal cohesion among cross-functional teams, grounded in preparation, training and testing, are key to good outcomes," it says, and success depends on preparation, agility, accurate data and a willingness to harvest good ideas from every layer of an enterprise.

"Many businesses spent the first weeks of the crisis reviewing continuity plans, establishing crisis command centres, and ensuring the safety and security of their workers," PwC says.

"We would expect these businesses to be entering the stabilisation wave of a crisis model in which companies are learning to operate in the new normal yet are continuing to respond to immediate fires.

"Much of the focus in the stabilise wave is on implementing tactical steps to preserve business value, including liquidity analysis, operational scenario planning and an assessment of government stimulus programmes." The third phase of the crisis model is to design a strategy to emerge stronger in a post-Covid-19 economy.

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