With the coronavirus pandemic front and center on everyone’s mind these days, companies are having to walk a fine line between taking care to communicate necessary and important information while also preventing widespread panic. How to go about doing that effectively begins and ends with a robust crisis management plan.

This article is from FRA's sister company, Compliance Week.

According to PwC’s Global Crisis Survey 2019, nearly seven in 10 leaders (69 percent) have experienced at least one corporate crisis in the last five years, while companies with more than 5,000 employees are likely to have experienced more than five crises—an average of one each year. While it may be true that business executives are no stranger to corporate crises, the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in its scope. “It’s unique in so many different ways because of the global scale of it,” says Brian Finch, a partner at law firm Pillsbury who co-leads the firm’s coronavirus response team.

In many ways, however, responding to the coronavirus from a crisis management standpoint is no different than responding to any other crisis. Companies that are best situated in these scenarios are those that can build a crisis plan for “navigating the unforeseeable twists and turns and being nimble in real-time,” says Amanda Halter, who co-leads Pillsbury’s coronavirus response team with Finch.

To help alleviate reputational and financial business disruptions caused by the coronavirus, consider the following eight important steps:

1. Assemble a crisis management response team. If you don’t have one in place already, the first order of business should be to assemble a core crisis response team to define processes and protocols. “The team should be comprised of senior management from across the business, representing key customer-facing and internal administrative roles,” says Matt Hinton, partner and head of the Crisis and Resilience Consulting practice for North America at Control Risks.

Generally, this team should include reps from HR, communications, security, compliance, and legal. It’s also a good idea to have in place an extended team that includes representatives from IT, finance, operations, supply chain, as well as regional representatives.

“From a safety and brand standpoint, your crisis management team needs to have the authority to fully respond and to quickly respond, regardless of the incident,” says James Green, director of Risk Advisory Services at SAI Global. Many times, companies make the mistake of having one group of people with day-to-day responsibility and authority while assigning a different group of people as the crisis management team. “You want the crisis management team to mirror the power structure and culture of the company.”

2. Factor in regional considerations. Under the crisis management team are regional teams tasked with similar activities but for incidents focused in their particular region, Hinton says. “Key to this multitiered approach is a clear definition of roles and responsibilities—‘who’s on first,’ depending on what type of crisis it is—and how escalation protocols will work as the impacts of crises increase.”

3. Have both an internal and external communication plan in place. Start by identifying key stakeholder groups—employees, customers, business partners, suppliers, shareholders, and others. Then you can start to think about what messages need to be delivered, in what form, and how frequently. “Part of the core team’s challenge is to thread the needle between frequent communication and communication fatigue,” Halter says. “Those are real-time adjustments that you need to make.”

Both internally and externally, communication should be “early and often,” Green says, and people need to know when the next communication is coming. “That gives people a sense of calm,” he says. “That shows that you’re managing an incident and not just responding to it.”

Communications mechanisms must make sense for each group, region, or business function. “Internal communications come in a variety of forms ranging from e-mails to Webinars to town halls to crisis-specific intranet pages that house critical information about the crisis and the company’s response,” Hinton says. “External messaging should reflect each stakeholder’s specific concerns and needs.”

Also, be aware that what you share internally will inevitably be shared externally. “Internal and external messages can’t conflict with each other,” Green says. If those messages conflict, not only will you lose credibility, but you potentially create reputation crisis as well.

“In terms of internal and external communication creation and distribution, we always recommend that our clients have crisis communication specialists on retainer to assist in those activities,” Hinton says.

4. Don’t underestimate the importance of media training. “This is an area that companies trip on,” Green says. “If you’re going to put C-level [executives] in the public eye, they need to have professional training.” Doing earnings calls is a different skillset than facing a camera, he says.

“Media training also has to be an interactive experience—it is not something you can learn in a class or from a book,” Hinton says. “It must include practice conducting interviews, ideally in both a sit down and standing format, and being videotaped. We often employ individuals to act is if they are reporters and set-up mock press conferences with individuals in the audience to increase realism. These techniques help professionals feel more comfortable when confronted with the real thing.”

Also, it helps to learn from the mistakes of others. “We often utilize video clips from press conferences and taped PR announcements to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t,” Hinton adds.

5. Review and revise your business continuity plan. “Business continuity is a component of a crisis management plan. It’s not one in the same,” Halter says. A crisis management plan considers additional elements that are important to the organization’s overall health, whereas a business continuity plan focuses on a checklist around functions of the organization.

“There are a lot of organizations that have a business continuity plan and don’t necessarily have a crisis management plan,” Halter says. “What I would say to them is that it is still very much possible to organize in real-time.”

A generic business continuity plan needs to be adapted and tailored to cope with the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus. Does the business have in place policies and procedures for working remotely? How do sick time, employee leave policies, and travel policies need to be adjusted during this uncertain time? What data privacy and security controls are in place with employees accessing personally identifiable information at home?

Asks Finch: Does the business have the technology bandwidth to cope with a remote workforce? Are internal systems configured, established, and robust enough to meet the “unprecedented surge in peak demand?”

6. Exercise scenario-planning drills. Hinton recommends exercising realistic scenarios that provide executives with an opportunity to practice crisis response in a safe environment. “It’s not too late to conduct exercising in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, especially given the ‘long tail’ this crisis will likely have,” he says. “A longer-term focused coronavirus scenario provides executives a unique and experiential environment to think through tough issues in both the present and future as it relates to the outbreak that is far more effective than having a traditional executive meeting.”

7. Don’t forget about the recovery stage. Many companies make the mistake of spending significant time on the readiness and response stage of a crisis and often forget about the recovery stage, Hinton says. “Recovery, in its simplest form, is focused on how the organization transitions back to business-as-usual as a crisis starts to slow down and/or cease to exist,” he says.

Eventually things will slow down again, and when they do, one thing companies can do is a “crisis-focused lookback that provides the organization with insight into not only how they performed during the crisis (response evaluation), but how ready they were for the crisis in the first place (readiness evaluation),” Hinton says. “The insight gained in these reviews is invaluable, but many organizations don’t do them, and they end up making the same mistakes in the next crisis.”

8. Keep calm and carry on. “When you have so many things coming at you in a crisis scenario, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds,” Halter says. It’s important to pause and to constantly be tracking back to the company’s overall crisis management objectives—whether that’s maintaining a healthy workforce, managing the production of key facilities, or customer relations—and being willing to adjust course in real-time.

We are all experiencing an unprecedented time. “There will be error,” Halter says. “The key thing is how quickly you can assess the error or assess the adjustment that needs to be made and actually make it.”