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Sue Mucha

Or how not to make a (potential) problem bigger than it is.

As I write this (Feb. 28), the spread of Covid-19 within the US is still very limited in terms of numbers of confirmed cases. That said, it is already creating a large body of communications lessons to be learned that will remain relevant a month from now.

The stock market has tanked, and people are fearful of what’s next because there is a lot of speculation on worst-case scenarios. Cases are growing worldwide, and the media is uttering the words “will have an impact on the supply chain” every other sentence.

The basic problem with this or any other evolving crisis (be it pandemic, material allocation or natural disaster) is, at the beginning, it can be difficult to assess what will happen. Will this be an H1N1-type event, where business continues with heightened attention to employee health in impacted areas, or will it require the draconian quarantine measures already seen in China that created significant supply-chain disruption? The answers may be unclear for weeks. The natural impulse is to say as little as possible. The problem is when only the media is talking, people imagine worst-case scenarios. Hence the huge selloffs in the stock market.

Most electronics manufacturing services (EMS) companies have four or five primary audiences that need regular communications. In the case of publicly traded companies governed by SEC regulations related to disclosure of material events, creating a coordinated communications campaign that includes shareholders is critical, because if it becomes widely known within a company that COVID-19 issues are going to impact quarterly results significantly, these companies are required to disclose that information to shareholders. That is why companies, including Apple, Jabil and others, have issued statements. Privately held companies simply need to focus on customers, employees, prospects and their supply chains.

  • What does one say when there are significant unknowns? Focus messaging on what is known. Internal questions to ask in developing this messaging include:
  • Are we experiencing supply-chain disruption? What steps is our company taking to address this? How is it impacting our operations?
  • Are any of our facilities impacted by COVID-19 infections or travel restrictions related to those infections? What is the impact on our operations?
  • Do we have a protocol in place for minimizing disease transmission among our workers? Should we tell customers and prospects what steps we are taking?
  • Do our systems support work-at-home strategies? Should we discuss this with employees and provide clear guidelines?
  • What workplace education needs to be done with our employees to help them better understand their responsibilities in self-quarantining and maintaining good health practices to minimize virus spread?
  • What contingency plans do we have in place should a large outbreak reduce staff for an extended period?
  • Are we communicating effectively with suppliers to understand real-time changes in the status of inbound shipments? Is there a way to organize that communication process to ensure all stakeholders are notified if there is significant change in any organization’s situation? Do we need to push back on some material due to other shortages in any projects? Are there any border crossing or transportation bottlenecks in our area that need to be communicated to suppliers so shipments can be routed differently?
  • Have we educated employees on their communications duties, so messaging to customers and suppliers is always cohesive versus changing based on who is asked?
  • Do we have a media communications policy in place? This last question is very important because the media is randomly contacting members of the supply chain to get updates and will take the answer of anyone who answers the phone and has an opinion.

If your company is large enough to have a communications department, most of this is likely already done. However, if your company doesn’t have a communications department or specialist, these are the key steps:

Create a committee that includes senior management, supply chain management, HR and production management. That group should discuss what is known, likely issues that will occur as the situation evolves, and what is being done to mitigate those likely risks. This team should determine what should be shared with each group of stakeholders.

Decide on messages to be communicated, messaging formats, communication channels and frequency of messaging. At the customer level, coordinating communication through program managers can be highly effective, provided the program managers have clear direction on the messages. Similarly, employee “all-hands” meetings are an excellent way to communicate with staff, provided supervisors have been briefed and have a detailed sheet with responses to the most likely post-meeting employee questions. From a marketing standpoint, periodic email bulletin updates and social media posts work well with prospects. Providing information via your website is also an option. The supply-chain communications activities may be coordinated through buyers or commodity managers, and once again, answers to likely questions should be brainstormed in advance so those communicating have clear guidelines on what they can say.

Transparency matters. The goal shouldn’t be to paint a rosier picture than the situation dictates. The goal is to fill the communications void and establish trust that your company will provide news as the situation evolves. Be careful of overstating good news and share bad news candidly.

Situations like COVID-19 present one of the most difficult corporate communications challenges because what is true today may not be true tomorrow. While we can’t predict the outcome, lack of communication ensures stakeholders will form opinions about what is happening with your company based on what they hear from friends, other companies or the media. That may drive companies to plan stealth supply-chain moves, make employees fearful of self-reporting flu-like symptoms, or discourage prospects evaluating new suppliers from choosing your company. A comprehensive crisis communication strategy that creates unified messaging, ensures employees understand their roles and responsibilities, and keeps other stakeholders aware of your current situational assessments is the best way to build trust in a time of fear and misinformation.

Susan Mucha is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (powell-muchaconsulting.com), a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services; smucha@powell-muchaconsulting.com.

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