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Communicating Covid: effective crisis comms will save your reputation

Do any of my fellow Aussies remember that short window of time back in January, when the fires ceased and Corona was merely a refreshing beer of choice on a lazy afternoon?

I do.

I was making plans for the year. I thought 2020 had just got off to a bad start and we’d all regroup, help rebuild some of the country’s most ravaged areas, sponsor a koala, and then maybe get back to some normalcy.

I was planning to fly to Tassie to experience Dark Mofo, the winter version of the MONA FOMA festival, a full sensory adventure that celebrates the darkness of the southern winter solstice … but the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic had other ideas and like so many of our 2020 plans, it was cancelled.

Fast forward to March, and the sheer magnitude of the virus and subsequent cancellation of activity has ensured a wave of communications from business to consumer. This gives us all an unprecedented look at how companies are choosing to communicate with their audience.

Most of us have not lived through any event of this degree and as human beings with insecurities, anxieties and shortcomings, we’re understandably left with questions and stresses about what this means for us now and into the future. I have taken great interest in reading all communications from the companies I subscribe to and taking lessons in their differing approach to how they address me – their customer.

Someone with experience communicating a crisis of this size is my former boss Nhan Chiem. He has just published a comprehensive review on the lessons he learnt from his time working in the Group Public Affairs team of HSBC in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak of 2003 Coronavirus: 4 communication lessons from SARS
In it, he shares communication principles and tips that will protect your organisation and support your people through this pandemic.

Make no mistake, the way a business communicates with their audience throughout this time will be what solidifies loyalty – or what obliterates it.

Your customers have the same dreams, hopes and fears you do. Address these first and not your bottom line. They will know the difference. Speak in a clear and transparent way, answering their questions as your business understands them. Don’t have the answers? Communicate that. That’s okay, this is a rapidly changing beast but trust isn’t based on your knowledge. It’s based on your ability to communicate what you do know. Keep the lines of communication open and you will retain your customers and ultimately, your business. Misleading or confusing your customers (knowingly or not) will damage your reputation and you mightn’t recover when the droplets from the virus finally settle…..

David Dominic Walsh AO is an Australian professional gambler, art collector and businessman. He is also the owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). On March 11, he posted a statement on the Dark Mofo website that is human, witty, transparent and hopeful. It is the best example I have seen to date and I have shared it below as an example.

Advantage is a better soldier than rashness.

— Henry V, Act III, Scene 6


We’re killing Dark Mofo for the year. I know that will murder an already massacred tourism environment, but I feel like I have no choice (hint: that means I have a choice).

Rational consequences of risk are defensive planning (toilet rolls), and late decision-making. Kirsha, my wife, was planning a fundraiser for her garden project, in April. She sold just two tickets (thanks, and sorry, Tim and Irene). Her events are very popular, so what happened?

Fear is what happened. That fear is compelled by uncertainty. Fear is the right response. And that right response means we would have trouble selling tickets to Dark Mofo events, also.

Right now, the government and Mona are each on the hook for $2 million to run Dark Mofo. That’s bad. What’s worse, as far as I’m concerned, is that if we ran Dark and nobody came, I’d lose $5 million or more, because I would have to cover the absent ticket revenue. Leigh Carmichael, Dark Mofo’s boss, suggested an $8 million scenario: if a staff member contracted COVID-19 a week out from the festival, we’d have to cancel because the staff would need to self-isolate for two weeks, but we’d also have to pay all the artists. That kind of blowout would affect Mona’s program, and I’d be back to subsisting on the diet I had when I was eighteen – pineapples and mint slice biscuits.

When my property was on fire in 1998 and I tried to hose it, there wasn’t any water. That’s because all the people in my street were also trying to hose the fire, and there was a run on the water. Everybody wanted water, so nobody got it. That’s a correlated outcome. And, of course, if all the houses burn down, insurance companies can’t pay out. That’s another correlated outcome. It’s easy to miss that connected events increase risk. I could miss that now, but I’m not going to. I’d rather be a rich coward than a poor hero. I’m pouring cold water on Dark Mofo while there’s still water to pour.

Here’s my correlated outcome. COVID-19 might jeopardise my income if we run Dark Mofo. It is already jeopardising my income elsewhere. I bet on horseracing, and horseracing is being cancelled in COVID-19-affected countries. Soon, that might be all of them.

I don’t expect Mona to be badly affected, at least initially. That’s because people can choose to go to Mona on whim. If the world is alright, they can just rock up today, or in a couple of days. But at times such as these, it’s predicting some way in to the future that demands caution. Whereas unlike a Mona visit, Dark asks its attendees to make decisions months in advance.

Naturally, Leigh Carmichael is forlorn, but he sees no other option. He and Dark’s committed staff had planned another bang-up celebration of ‘the heart of darkness’, and although they lament that that journey will not be undertaken, they understand that a few who might have embarked on that journey could also have been undertaken – crossing the River Styx was never meant to be on this year’s program.

It’s likely that nothing will happen. June will roll up, COVID-19 will die down, and I’ll look (more) like a fool for having cancelled. But that’s the best thing that could happen. The worst thing that could happen is not me trashing my cash. We could soldier on, without consideration or advantage, have the crowd turn up anyway, and send them home sick. But that wouldn’t be the worst thing, either. Worse than that, for me at least, would be proceeding with Dark Mofo and having it fail, and thus having it become the final Dark Mofo. That would mean facing a future of Hobart winters unpunctuated by pageantry, and thus returning to a tyranny of complacency – that worse-than-COVID Hobart malaise of believing we don’t have to seek to do more, and we don’t have to seek to do better.

So we’ll see you next year. Assuming, that is, another black swan doesn’t cause another white elephant.


David has also started an isolation blog called DAVID’S COVID-19 DIARY

#StayhomeSavelives
Anne

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