Australia’s small and medium businesses must immediately factor coronavirus into their communications strategy. The big corporates shouldn’t be monopolising the response.
On March 4, Peter Strong, chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia (COSBOA), urged the Australian government to help protect SMEs from the spread of the infectious disease, now officially known as COVID-19.
Strong is right to draw attention to the impacts across the business sector, at a time when the public is focussed on daily falls in the stock prices of listed companies and panic buying at the major supermarkets.
Where are the stories about the effects on self-employed plumbers and other trades who will be at the frontline? Or about independent grocers running out of toilet paper? Or small local restaurants at risk of closing because of a drop in patronage?
Yes, a federal government response is needed. But SMEs must also seize the initiative with a strong, decisive and timely communications strategy to the outbreak; Canberra alone will not allay the concerns of your customers, staff and supply chain.
Low-cost, high-impact communications for SMEs can help turn what is an extreme risk into an opportunity to show leadership and build trust and brand loyalty.
As a first step, every SME owner will want to closely monitor all communications from key government agencies and health bodies including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the CDC, and consider how your communications can assist or respond.
Ensuring you identify risks before they evolve into your problems for your organisation is critical. It’s also important to fight misinformation — both in your industry and among worried customers and staff.
Thorough monitoring will help business owners identify opportunities to educate and reassure stakeholders.
Consider a holding statement
You need to do more than rely on your industry peak body to take the lead.
Given the scale of the potential coronavirus effects in Australia, every SME should consider proactive external communications to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and a commitment to customers.
Even if your SME is not yet directly affected, a statement may help minimise negative commercial effects down the track.
A first, low-cost step might be issuing a neutral statement containing the following broad points:
- Express sympathy for everyone affected by this human tragedy;
- You have put active monitoring in place;
- You will do everything possible to help those affected; and
- You will keep customers, employees and stakeholders informed as you know more.
Take decisive action
As part of your internal and external communications strategy, SME owners should consider how they can prove they are acting quickly and decisively — and then publicise this decision.
For example, an SME might consider announcing where appropriate:
- Fee waivers;
- Discounts; and
- Small donations to aid relief.
Naturally, any additional costs during tough business conditions will require careful planning; not every business will be able to afford this.
But now is the time to build stronger connections to your customer base, and show your business cares.
Of course, anything you do must be genuine and have a direct connection to groups potentially affected by the virus. For example, you might offer special discounts to elderly and vulnerable customers who are self-quarantining.
These announcements can then be publicised at low cost through email newsletters, social media, internal noticeboards and trade press.
Communicating to staff is most important, especially in smaller offices. Alleviate fears by showing you are handling the situation.
Call a staff meeting to discuss how you are addressing the potential effects — sooner rather than later.
Tone is important — your communications should be decisive but not panicked. Project calm and confidence.
To show you are thinking ahead, you might announce to the team:
- Daily cleaning of the office to reduce the risk of infection;
- A new remote work policy; and
- A new leave policy for staff without leave entitlements.
Team up with other SMEs
While you don’t have the resources of the big corporates, there is power in numbers.
Convene an informal meeting of like-minded SME owners to discuss the effects on your industry. Share with them the communications strategy you are designing and get their feedback. Offer to co-sign public statements, share discounts, match donations, and support their social media posts.
Building partnerships will help get your message out to a wider audience.
Seek expert advice
Finally, if you are a business in a highly affected sector, seek immediate crisis communications support.
The best step in responding to a potential crisis is to have a plan in place before it hits.