Capital Markets Corporate

February 14, 2020

Communications lessons from the coronavirus outbreak

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The handling of a crisis is imperative to how the story develops and the public reacts. The communications strategy adopted at the outset plays a key role and must be given serious consideration.

This week China reported one of the sharpest rises in coronavirus cases. Wednesday was reportedly the deadliest day for the coronavirus or Covid-19 outbreak as it continues to gather pace within China and in a growing number of countries across the globe.

There have been reports over whether the virus was not taken seriously enough at first, whether experts weren’t listened to and reports of a cover up with rampant misinformation spreading fake news and even racism online. The handling of how this virus has been communicated therefore presents some key lessons for companies too.

Handling misinformation

Misinformation in this global health crisis has been rife, with many competing voices and sources of information – only to be amplified by today’s media landscape. More than ever before it is vital to ensure that the right voice is heard and across all channels. This can be across traditional media, social media and other online channels. Ultimately, you need to get ahead of the story and make sure you’re not the last to comment on a story that has been spiralling for some time. The threat of fake news taking over looms large, which reaffirms the need to be transparent from the start.

In terms of mitigating and making sure those concerned have access to accurate and helpful information, it is interesting to see that Google has activated an SOS alert in search results for searches linked to the coronavirus. This helps by steering people towards reliable sources of information, before they see ad-related content.

Be truthful and don’t cover up

Government officials in China are also now being accused of a cover-up, with two top officials fired this week in the worst hit region of the virus. Getting things wrong is one thing – but covering up is another thing entirely. Understanding what went wrong, why it went wrong and putting in processes, checks and balances to ensure this never happens again is essential. The reaction is also just as important. Covering up the true story will never work and will only present further challenges as the story develops and the truth unravels.

While human error does happen, companies should own up to mistakes. Authenticity goes a long way in re-building trust if it has been seriously eroded. Mistakes happen. But companies who have made a mistake need to be quick to own up, apologise if in the wrong and remedy the issue.

Act quick and consider communications early on

Often companies in a crisis leave communications as the last port of call. However, considering the role that communications can play much earlier on in a crisis is where joined up strategic communications can add real tangible value. This can ensure improved brand reputation and for listed companies a share price improvement to boot.

While the world hopes that the sharp rise in coronavirus cases will eventually ease, the communications lessons to be learnt remain just as important now than ever before.

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