The WHO have called this pandemic an ‘infodemic’ for good reason. It is also a crisis of trust.
The first task with any new incident or crisis response is sense-making. Some of the key questions being asked as COVID-19 emerged included what is going on, who is impacted and at risk, how will this affect our business operations and supply chain, how bad can this get, and what do we need to mobilise to support response? The answers to some of these questions started emerging in in January, but there were multiple variations of the “truth” so how do organisations make sense of it to control the messages with the range of audiences that we all have?
Having stood up the incident management team, as they make sense of what is going on, it is good practice to bring together responses to these initial questions into a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document. The humble FAQ is a vital tool in ensuring consistent messages are provided to the various audiences that you need to reach. Indeed identifying these audiences, and where the most questions are likely to come in from, helps to set the scale of the support needed. With global spread potential and expanding travel restrictions it became rapidly apparent to anyone watching that this was going to be big. I vividly remember an email from our Head of Wellbeing towards the end of January saying “this is on isn’t it… I’ll clear my diary!”
So as we look to make sense we need to establish robust links to authoritative and trusted sources of information. So for example in the United Kingdom for COVID-19 – Public Health England, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and WHO. That’s as opposed to twitter, tiktok, and Donald Trump’s attempts at medical advice (obviously!). Again good practice has organisations reviewing their own risk appetite to decide if they would go beyond that advice, either risk averse or risk seeking. But the more you diverge from authoritative sources, particularly with health, the more questions there are to answer from your audiences, including from the media searching for a story.
Organisations across the globe have mobilised response to COVID-19, and whilst we watch and wait to see when and how lockdown will end, we are again at the sense-making stage, coupled with scenario planning for a phased return to work and (eventually) recovery. But there are hundreds of questions.. when will lockdown measures ease, which sectors first, what about key workers, what about childcare, how will we make social distancing work in the workplace, how do we plan for restrictions being tightened back up again? Again the humble FAQ comes to the rescue. Here’s how.
I was involved in managing a meningitis outbreak at a University campus back in 2017 following the death of a student, and at that time we did not have a formal helpline plan. But we built one and mobilised a team within 24 hours to take calls, using the FAQ as the basis for consistent responses. All questions that couldn’t be answered were logged and a central team reviewed these daily, confirmed the official position, and responded directly. These responses further built the FAQs and helped us to further explore audiences and the support needed. We were then able to prioritise and adjust the order that information was made available on the website. The questions being asked the most at the top of the page. Responses were also structured by audience groups, Staff, existing students, prospective students, to aid navigation.
During COVID-19 we were able to scale this plan early and anticipate the need for ongoing remote delivery of the helpline, and IT worked quickly to enable a teleworker helpline from home model, mirroring our IT Service Desk set up. I’m sure many of you will agree that IT have been the unsung heroes during this response. More on that another time.
So as we try to make sense of the next steps and plan for a phased return and business continuity, don’t forget the humble FAQ. Keep it up to date, anticipate your key audience questions and share it with your partner organisations. Make the answers available on your website, train up your helpline and front of house staff and link the FAQ to your incident management team to ensure consistent messaging. Finally, don’t forget to do a daily review of the messages to ensure they are always up to date. The fastest way for your audiences to lose confidence in the incident management team is to still be talking about yesterday’s development when the story has moved on. Note this blog was published on the 1st May 2020!
If you’d like to learn more about planning for a phased return and business recovery, please give me a call to discuss how I can help.