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Covid-19: Communicating change in times of crisis

The outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus scientifically known as Covid-19, has plunged the world into a crisis of unpreceded proportion. As the numbers of those infected by the virus continues to surge across countries and continents, it is clear that life as we know it today will not be the same again, at least until a cure is found and until social and economic systems ravaged by the pandemic have recovered.

As the virus slowly makes its way through Africa, there is need for leaders across the various political, economic and social structures to reflect on how communication about the coronavirus crisis is being managed especially in the context of helping those that they lead to understand the imminence of the crisis, its implications and associated necessary responses.

For organisational leaders, this crisis has brought into the spotlight the importance of functional crisis management systems which are supported by dynamic and responsive crisis communication strategies. From the moment that it became clear that Covid-19 was spreading from China to the rest of the world, organisational leaders should have activated their crisis management systems.

Best practice dictates that any organisation should have a crisis management plan. It is also best practice that such a plan should be supported by a crisis communication strategy. The missing link so far has been the lack of crisis management and crisis communication strategies in many organisations.

When a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, occurs, what becomes clear is the need for change. What is difficult for many organisational leaders and employees, however, is accepting the reality that change must occur in as far as how the organisation has been and will continue to operate in the foreseeable future.

Part of internal communication management in organisations involves preparing leaders and employees for environmental change. This is an important brief of the communications department of every organisation.

Working in liaison with the CEO, the strategic communications or public relations manager in the organisation prepares the organisation for change which sometimes is unexpected. This is because both the internal and external environment in which the organisation operates is constantly changing in response to social, economic and political pressures. The best way to prepare for unexpected change is to have a crisis management and crisis communications plan. This ensures that the organisation isn’t caught pants down in the event of a crisis.

Covid-19 has brought the need for leaders to make tough decisions such as allowing employees to work remotely from home so as to prevent any of them from contracting the virus while travelling to and from work and in the process putting their lives at risk and turning the workplace into a hotspot. It has also meant thinking about taking advantage of technology to facilitate virtual interaction among employees and between the organisation and its clients. In the worst case, it has meant thinking about closing shop for a few weeks or months until the pandemic has been managed.

In the context of all this, leaders have had to worry about employee motivation. In the face of risks associated with going to work, it is beyond doubt that employees have felt demotivated by the thought of travelling to work. With the prospect of working from home, employees have undoubtedly worried about getting the necessary support from their leaders that working remotely from home would be feasible and that necessary resources such as equipment, access to telephone and internet services would be availed without a hassle. In the event of a scale-down of operations or complete shutdown, employees have found themselves worried about job security – whether they would continue to receive their usual remuneration, or they would be laid off.

Crisis management and crisis communication planning would have ensured that leaders and organisations were well prepared to tackle such issues and concerns in the event of a crisis. Scenario planning, during the crisis management planning stage, would have incorporated disaster responsiveness. Furthermore, the crisis communications plan would have then ensured that a messaging strategy is in place to help leaders communicate about the crisis in ways that keep employees motivated and committed to the organisation’s response to the crisis.

The role of the communications manager in this context is crucial. As a counsellor, the communications manager ensures that leaders and employees get good advice to guide their decision-making — about whether to work remotely, scale down operations or shut down. As the strategist, the communications manager ensures that engagement between organisational leaders and employees facilitates positive behaviour in line with the core directional objectives of the organisation. For this to happen, the right messages must be framed and shared through appropriate channels. As the corporate evangelist, the communications manager rallies everyone around the crisis response strategy so that they are motivated and committed to the strategy.

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has exerted pressure on organisational leaders to introspect on their capacity to respond to the need for change in the wake of crises. In the process of introspection, they will need to reflect on how organisational culture has either hindered or promoted more proactive, efficient and creative responses by their organisations to the Covid-19 outbreak. They will also need to reflect on crisis response mechanisms and how their presence or absence has affected their responses to the Covid-19 outbreak. They will also need to reflect on the role of the communications department in their organisations in as far as how it has facilitated and enabled the creation of a dynamic organisational culture that is responsive to change. Further, they will need to look at how their communications departments have facilitated positive change conversations in response to the crisis aimed at motivating employees and leaders towards sustainable organisational responses to the crisis.

In conclusion, organisational leaders need to understand the strategic importance of crisis communication planning within their business operations. It is never a matter of if, but a matter of when crises happen. Crises are inevitable and it is how leaders and organisations respond to these crises that shapes how they will be judged in the eyes of employees and other stakeholders.

Thandolwenkosi Nkomo is a public relations researcher, strategist and trainer who lectures in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the National University of Science and Technology. He is also the founder and director of Maracomms Global, a public relations research, strategy and training consultancy. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies with the University of South Africa. He can be contacted at e-mail: thandolwenkosi.nkomo@nust.ac.zw or maracommsglobal@gmail.com

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