COVID-19 Outbreak is a Crisis: How Are You Managing Your Issues?

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) is a crisis with complex potential impacts on companies in transportation and logistics. According to some attendees at the TMSA Connections event at MODEX in Atlanta yesterday, shippers are implementing new procedures for professional truck drivers making deliveries and arriving for pickups. Third-party logistics providers and motor carriers are being asked by their customers to provide them with detailed information about how they’re addressing this crisis in their own operations to help them maintain a safe, secure supply chain.

COVID-19 is having an impact on international shipping as well. In fact, Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) moves through the Port of Los Angeles dropped more than 20% year-over-year in February, due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on factory operations in Asia. Volumes may continue to decline in March. And of course, for companies doing business in Asia and Europe, things have gotten more complicated with recent travel bans. 

View FMCSA emergency proclamation (posted March 13, 2020) - which includes details with respect to targeted, limited relief from Hours of Service (HOS) for COVID-19 emergency efforts.

So How Should Marketers and Sales Professionals Respond?
While every situation is unique, there are primary principles in crisis management that may have gotten lost in the initial noise surrounding the spread of the disease. A methodical, strategic approach that’s grounded in these principles can prepare your organization for what may come next.

While the situation can change by the hour, it’s recommended that crisis teams plan for the worst and hope for the best. Crisis teams, marketing and communication professionals, and sales executives also face the challenge of holding on to the management attention that this crisis will need not just for the next week, but potentially for the next few months.

Here are some essential crisis management tools to guide you through this crisis – and future ones like it:
Know your stakeholders. Frankly, it’s a bit late in the game to be starting stakeholder mapping for this particular crisis. Now is when this tool is essential to ensure you are tailoring your message to your audiences’ needs. But don’t fret – if you don’t have one, just make it an urgent priority.

This crisis can raise stakeholder considerations that are highly unusual: For every individual stakeholder there is an element of personal risk. This can raise a level of anxiety that means your communications should strike a relatively reassuring tone, as everyone is experiencing an amount of fear. In addition, rumors and misinformation can amplify the effect on stakeholders because of this underlying personal fear.

Stakeholders also will be impacted differently depending on their culture and geography. If you’re an international company in transportation and logistics, how you engage with stakeholders in countries where government authorities are credible and already out there communicating well will be different from countries where the opposite is the case.

A solid example of how a credible, responsive authority communicates with the public could include:

  • A website with clearly defined stakeholder groups (e.g. shippers, carriers, strategic partners, investors, employees) and what it is asking them to do.
  • A WhatsApp group sending messages at least twice daily with an update on cases.
  • Videos of key leaders posted on social media with advice on how to respond.
  • Social media posts with the same messaging.

Now that reliable data is beginning to come in, you might be tempted to conclude that this is not a real crisis, just a mass panic event. In fact, it doesn’t make any difference: Your organization’s reaction should be the same whether the threat is real, imagined or just irrationally inflated.

This means your stakeholder communications need to accept that reality and craft your message accordingly. Your aim will be to demonstrate that you understand their concerns and are putting their safety first.

Don’t deny the validity of stakeholders’ perception that they are in real danger. Playing down the potential impact of the crisis will undermine your message and your credibility.

Clear, Constant Communication is Key
In a crisis like a disease outbreak that evokes fear, your organization should establish itself as a voice of authority that stakeholders can trust. Even if your organization has little risk of immediate impact in your operations, business strategy, marketing or commercial development, do whatever you can to get in front of the issue.Messaging should communicate that you are in control (even if that control is tenuous and limited). Demonstrate action of some sort to send that message. 

You’ll also want to communicate more frequently than you think is sufficient. Be ready to react instantly if misinformation starts to spread and repeat existing messaging whenever there is no new news to report.

The challenge here is how to strike a tone that is reassuring but sufficiently serious. If someone in the office has gone home with a cough, what do you tell other members of your team?

Best Practices in Crisis Communications by companies involved in TMSA:
C.H. Robinson
Crowley Maritime
Averitt Express
Tucker Company Worldwide

Planning For The Worst
Some organizations are issuing notices to suppliers or strategic partners banning all face-to-face meetings. Striking the right tone on such a message is difficult: Why should suppliers be singled out for special treatment? Does that mean they matter less? That they are a greater risk? If you are going to single out a stakeholder group for special treatment, be clear on your reasons and ensure it is consistent with the overall aims of your messaging and long-term strategy.

Potential Longer-Term Impacts
There already are signs of decline in human interaction in daily life in affected areas. In fact, according to TMSA’s CEO Brian Everett who attended MODEX in Atlanta this week, several attendees were notified that upon their return from the show they are to work from home in a voluntary quarantine. People are not meeting—for business or social purposes. Consider the potential impact this has on stakeholder communities and whether there are steps we should be taking to counteract the impact of this kind of isolation.

TMSA will continue to monitor this situation closely, listen to what members are doing from a crisis communication standpoint, and will continue to report best practices and new ideas on how to best move forward.

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