NH experts stress the need for communication in a crisis

Consistent, timely and accurate information is essential, they say
Jayme Simoes

‘The number one thing any business can do right now is to think of the health and safety of their customers and staff,’ says Jayme Simoes, CEO of Louis Karno & Company, a Concord-based marketing and public relations firm.

Across New Hampshire, businesses, schools and organizations are grappling with the ever-changing policies related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s an unprecedented time for everyone, and with so many unknowns, the need for consistent, accurate and timely information couldn’t be greater.

Jayme Simoes, president and CEO of Louis Karno & Company LLC, a marketing and public relations firm based in Concord, says most businesses were unprepared for this public health crisis.

“We are reacting, not acting,” he said. “I met with a group (recently), and the responses ranged from ‘Everyone is overacting’ to ‘let’s just see what happens.’”

That’s not good enough, said Simoes, adding, “the number one thing any business can do right now is to think of the health and safety of their customers and staff.”

The second thing to consider is how best to communicate with staff and customers. Simoes said to make it clear what steps your business is taking to keep customers and employees safe.

“My advice is to take a cold, hard look at your protocols and be ready to change. Send a message that you care,” he said. “Finally, something like this will happen again. Take the time to prepare and plan.”

Crisis management team

For some organizations, planning and preparing are essential parts of their organizations.

“We pre-worry about everything that could happen and have a plan. While we didn’t anticipate this specific situation, we already have protocols in place,” said Cathleen Toomey, vice president of marketing for The RiverWoods Group, a continuum of care retirement community for people age 62 and older with campuses in Durham, Exeter and Manchester.

“We serve the highest-risk population and are the largest independent continuing care retirement community in northern New England,” she said. “We conduct desktop drills so that everyone understands who does what. We want super-clear role specifications so we are not stepping on each other’s toes. ”We have an entire notebook of scenarios responding to different situations.”

Lauren Keane, assistant vice president of communications at Southern New Hampshire University, said the university’s crisis management team has been meeting daily for the past three weeks.

“We have had a crisis management team for years, and we meet bimonthly and do quarterly training exercises so we have a good foundation,” she said. “It’s not just about having a crisis communication plan that sits on a shelf. You need to have the team at the ready where everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.”

‘Communicate alternatives’

That ability to respond effectively is key. Now is the time for businesses and organizations to show how they can pivot and adapt to this evolving situation, said Robin Schell, senior counsel and partner at Rye-based Jackson, Jackson and Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management-consulting firm that specializes in crisis communication

“Articulate concerns, address them, and help people through them,” she said. “Communicate alternatives.”

Cathleen Toomey

According to Cathleen Toomey, vice president of marketing for The RiverWoods Group, organizations should ‘be proactive. Be honest. Be compassionate and human’ in their communications.

Toomey also stressed the need to speak with one voice to avoid mixed messages.

“We want to create one message that is then issued to all three campuses,” she said, adding that messages are tailored to meet the needs of specific audiences – staff, residents and the families of residents.

Toomey recommended that businesses err on the side of over-communicating.

“Be proactive. Be honest. Be compassionate and human. Involve people in the journey,” Toomey said. “Communicate, communicate, communicate”

Schell reminds companies and organizations to take special care of their employees during these challenging times.

“Don’t forget about those that work for you. This is an opportunity to build loyalty,” Schell said. “It’s important to show how much you value them.”

However, there are still difficulties because of the evolving nature of the outbreak.

“The biggest challenge has been all of our different audiences and the speed of the information coming in and that it’s changing quickly,” Keane said.

Those audiences include not only students and faculty, but parents, staff, partners and vendors.

SNHU is known for its online degree programs, but it also has a residential campus of over 3,000 students in as well as 4,000 employees in Manchester. Residential students were sent home on March 13 and will be taking classes remotely for at least two weeks, while Manchester-based employees have transitioned to working from home except for essential staff, Keane said.

What has helped, she said, was the development of an audience matrix so that it is clear who those audiences are, the best way to communicate with them, and how manages those information and distribution channels.

For example, Keane said, SNHU has a robust internal website for staff, students and faculty that is constantly updated, and it has a rapid response team in place answering questions that are coming in through a dedicated email address.

Toomey said employee support is critical and everyone pitches in.

“A few years ago, we had a blizzard, and I live close enough that I could snowshoe in. The CEO and I were serving meals in the dining room,” said “We are a 24/7 workplace. We do anything we can to support our employees.”

 The CDC’s communication resources

The Centers for Disease Control has resources to help businesses, schools and organizations communicate, including the following advice:

  • Promote positive action steps
  • Keep an honest and open tone
  • Describe the actions being taken.
  • Describe what actions will be taken
  • List information on possible reactions of public and ways citizens can help
  • Provide assurance
  • List contact information, ways to get more information, and other resources
  • Avoid jargon
  • Avoid judgmental phrases
  • Avoid humor
  • Avoid extreme speculation
  • Finally, people want to know that you care before they care what you know.
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