The COVID-19 pandemic is having wide-reaching effects on small and medium-sized businesses across the country. As the backbone of the Canadian economy, employing 90% of Canada’s private-sector workforce, small and medium enterprises are poised to take the lion’s share of the impact. Whether you run a corner store, manufacture auto parts, farm organic eggs, repair HVAC systems, or develop commercial real estate, you’re surely worried about what this crisis will mean for your future. And if you’re worried, you can bet your employees, vendors, partners, and customers are too. And they’ll be looking to you for reassurance.

Crisis communications is a specialty discipline in itself, one that many entrepreneurs have little experience in. Companies on the smaller end of the spectrum don’t often have their own marketing, communications, or PR teams at all. Communicating with stakeholders, in the midst of all the other business challenges you’re facing right now, can feel like an extremely daunting proposition.

But nothing is more important than communications right now. Business leaders play an important role in providing accurate information while also reassuring people and containing panic. Keeping employees, customers, vendors, and partners informed has to be a top priority as the world works together to contain this novel virus.

And you don’t need to feel as if you’re “making it up as you go.” Take the time to think through your communication strategy as you plan for the weeks and months ahead. Here are some of the specific tactics that Broad Reach has been advising clients to use while communicating during this unprecedented crisis. A little advance planning can ensure you have a thoughtful, proactive pandemic communications strategy.

  1. Start with empathy. While your business is a high priority for you, your stakeholders are primarily worried about themselves, their families, and their communities, as well as their colleagues and companies. Make sure they know that you understand where they’re coming from and that your decisions are guided accordingly. Show your stakeholders you can be trusted to do what’s right.
  1. Establish a centralized team to lead your crisis communications: It’s important to create clear ownership for communications, including those at the highest ranks of your company. The group should meet regularly to discuss ongoing developments and agree on plans and tactics. They should be seen by the organization as the trusted source of information.
  1. Conduct a stakeholder analysis to determine which groups need to be communicated with and on what topics: Every group has different interests and needs, and information is important to different groups at different times. Determine how best to keep each group appropriately informed so they can help your business continue to operate.
  1. Create an easily accessible repository for up-to-date employee information: Your employees will have lots of questions. Answer them all, honestly and openly, and then make those answers available centrally (allowing you to avoid answering the same question again and again). Maintain a list on your company intranet, bulletin board, or other easily accessible places with up-to-date information and FAQs, and make sure employees know that that’s the first place they should look. You could also consider sending out a daily email to employees with the latest updates, to make sure you reach those who don’t consult the FAQs regularly.
  1. Keep customers and partners informed: Use your external webpage to keep customers and partners informed of updates as soon as they become available. Use email to share developments that affect them directly.
  1. Be proactive by developing messaging for various scenarios in advance: It’s hard to predict how the coming days and weeks will evolve. But we can imagine a certain number of possible scenarios (such as continued school closures, mandated lockdowns, or layoffs), and the more you can develop messaging in advance for each of those, the better prepared you will be should they become reality. Remember to lead with empathy and reassure employees that their wellbeing is of utmost importance to you.
  1. Consider the medium. It should go without saying that the most difficult topics, such as layoffs, should be initially discussed by personal phone call, not by written message. You’re undoubtedly feeling low on manpower and time right now, and slowing down to have personal conversations might feel unrealistic, but nothing could be more important. When we come out the other side of this crisis, you want your employees to remember how well they were treated.
  1. Know your brand, but study what your competitors and others are doing: It’s important to know your brand and stick to your company values. At the same time, employees, customers, and other stakeholders are paying attention to what other companies are doing, and so should you. You want to be an industry leader, not a follower, but in these uncertain times you can learn a lot from other organizations. Tap into your network to make sure you’re doing everything you can.
  1. Offer help to your customers: Your customers are facing all the same challenges you are, and if you’re in a position to help make things easier for them, you should. Maybe you can be flexible with terms, or even just share information and ideas. Working together during these difficult times is extremely important, and will go a long way to building trust, nurturing a collaborative environment, and reducing stress.
  1. Communicate about the good you’re doing: If your company is giving a product away or helping a particular community group, share that information via social media and put it on your website so that your efforts can be celebrated. We’re all in this together, and contributions should not go

This is a tough time for small- and medium-sized companies, their leaders, and their people. The more you can communicate with your stakeholders in a calm, empathetic, transparent way, the more you will maintain strong, trusting relationships that will carry you through this stressful time and out the other side.