Digital & Insights

Why your online communication should be prioritised in crisis preparation, response and recovery

Compound crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic mean Australian businesses are responding to new challenges and issues, often in an online environment, and must update their crisis preparedness and response accordingly.

Major events like the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare underlying inadequacies in our crisis planning, preparation and response. Facing multiple issues simultaneously, many business leaders have struggled to adequately respond to crises in the digital realm.

After months focusing on managing the business effects of COVID-19 the shortcomings of issues management and response have been exposed. In a challenging environment businesses are unable to hide from internal and external vulnerabilities.

Below we outline how the digital environment has changed in the wake of COVID-19 and what all organisations should be doing to improve their ability to respond to issues and crises online.

How the business environment had changed (and why your response must, too)

Australian businesses must consider what new vulnerabilities exist within their organisations due to COVID-19 and what further training and guidance teams need. To weather the COVID-19 storm people will need to be flexible and plans and processes will need to be well-drilled.

Our UK colleagues identified several factors that have contributed to the need for a more competent and considered online issues and crisis response:

Bad actors thrive in uncertain times, and there are no times more uncertain than now. Simply put, an organisation becomes more susceptible to opportunistic attacks at a time like this.

Financial and cybercrimes go up during a global crisis. Governments and banks across the world have reported an increase in cybercrime as criminals exploit new vulnerabilities and COVID-19 has placed increasing pressure on sectors like the insurance industry.

A remote workforce can be a security risk. In Australia, the almost instantaneous shift from working on a secure network in an office environment to remote work has left the data of many businesses, including the government, vulnerable to security breaches.

Consumer-facing businesses, in particular, are facing increased challenges from external threats. With many companies becoming more reliant on e-commerce this year, there’s an increased potential for phishing scams targeting customers, with companies expected to step up their duty of care. When this duty of care is neglected, recent examples suggest that the general public are no more forgiving in the current climate. Indeed, consumers and other stakeholders have more time on their hands and digital mobilisation on issues like customer care, executive pay, or employee welfare can happen more quickly and reach further than before.

The threat of compound crises comes not only from an increase in risks but also a weakened ability to handle secondary threats. The sheer number of working hours dedicated to responding to COVID-19 means that in many cases ‘business as usual’ no longer exists. Right across organisations resources are being stretched, be that communications, product or service offering, or internal fraud.

Weathering the COVID-19 storm requires a whole organisation working together, something that is only possible if all employees are aligned, loyal and feel secure in their position with the company.

Shifting the focus of crisis preparedness online

Most organisations have crisis, major incident or disaster response plans. Pre-COVID many would have viewed digital as a secondary channel. Now, with almost all activity happening online – from retail to telemedicine – there is a need for companies to re-evaluate their plans, incorporating robust social media and digital response guidelines. It is the right time to review and test crisis plans and procedures because the threats from compound crises are greater than ever.

Even though everything has changed the basics remain the same

There is no good time to experience a crisis, but navigating crises during a one-in-a-lifetime event like COVID-19 comes with additional challenges. Many Australian businesses leaders are guiding their employees, shareholders and customers through uncharted territory. Our advice is to adhere to your organisation’s fundamental values and to communicate clearly and transparently.

Even as we acknowledge that the world and business have radically changed over the past few months, we believe the basics of good crisis preparedness, response and recovery remain the same:

Be prepared to deliver clear, concise and regular communications to the affected parties. Your business must respond if an issue or crisis develops impacting your customers, employees or stakeholders.

Internal communications function must be fit for purpose. Empower managers with the information, training and tools they need to deliver your message to their people.

Develop clear decision-making trees and response criteria before a crisis hits. Businesses must delegate actions and decision-making to people with authority, who are equipped with complete information. People are highly attuned to risk at the moment – use this renewed focus and awareness to create robust, complete plans.

Draft generic crisis statements, including social media posts and internal communications, that can quickly be adapted and approved in a timely fashion. Depending on the severity of the crisis, many different parties will be involved in drafting communications to stakeholders – from the Board and legal to marketing and human resources. By pre-drafting key elements of your crisis response, key internal stakeholders can be in alignment on the best course of action.

The team managing your digital and social channels must understand the fundamentals of online crisis and issues management and have the authority – and experience – to respond in a high-pressure situation.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed and nowhere is this truer than in the digital realm. You should actively monitor what your customers and competitors are saying on social media, in the comment section of your website, on feedback forms and review sites like Google and Glassdoor. Issues surfacing online can be shared and escalate very quickly. Decisive action is key to diffusing and resolving issues before they escalate beyond your control. Online crisis plans should dictate your response to a variety of issues – from faulty products to disgruntled employees.

Own your online narrative. Complaints and content posted by customers should not be the first thing that appears in a search of your company. Social media accounts should feature a regular stream of quality content and your corporate blog, website and LinkedIn profile should be regularly updated. Check your business’s digital footprint and proactively create content to counter anything that negatively impacts your reputation. Seek out earned media coverage and make sure spokespeople are well-trained and versed in the company’s corporate messaging. This type of content improves your search engine optimisation (SEO) and may help steer readers away from negative commentary.

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