CORONAVIRUS: 4 communication lessons from SARS

By Nhan Chiem, the Head of Reputation, Digital & News at Uniting . Nhan has helped firms worldwide enhance their reputations, create digital experiences, and position themselves globally for over 20 years, including HSBC during the SARS crisis in 2003.

The unprecedented epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hobbled Hong Kong in 2003. At the time, I was working in the Group Public Affairs team of HSBC in Hong Kong.

People have been in touch with me over recent weeks to understand lessons from that experience. And I’d like to share these communication principles and tips to protect your organisation and support your people through the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Openness and transparency will help suppress hysteria

Many companies may be tempted to withhold information or, even worse, spin themselves out of a crisis. The top principle to maintain the trust of your workforce, clients and other stakeholders is to be open and transparent in your communications. At the same time, it is important to seek guidance from local health agencies when you have suspected or positive cases. For the team at HSBC, this included disclosing internally the locations and names of employees affected when a case of SARS was confirmed (with their consent and in consultation with local health agencies). This was critical to counter rumour, speculation and to dampen hysteria. When people trust that you’ll tell it as it is, they won’t rush to (incorrectly) fill the gaps.

Also ensure you have a single channel for employee questions and client queries. Record and monitor the theme and frequency of queries to fine-tune the content and regularity of future communications. Conducting ‘pulse-checks’ — or regular calls across a sample of your workforce (including those from diverse cultural backgrounds) — can also help ensure communication is meeting the needs of your workforce.

You need a single source of information for each segment of your audience

The facts for pandemics can change rapidly — a piece of communication can be incorrect soon after you distribute it. For this reason, you’ll need to provide a ‘pull’ source of information that is readily accessible for each key audience. For your workforce, this could be a Covid-19 site on your intranet or sharepoint site that contains the latest, policies, procedures and updates. For HSBC, we consolidated all our policies, procedures and guidelines in one indexed digital handbook that was continuously updated, with new information flagged in a version tracker. This was hosted on a SARS section of the intranet and enabled employees to feel confident they had access to the latest information. It also helped us stay on top of developments.

For distributed workforces who don’t readily have access to computers, mobile devices are a powerful channel. This is when apps and collaborative tools are particularly important. For clients and external stakeholders, you can refer people to a Covid-19 section of your website for the latest updates impacting your business. One tip: don’t be tempted to update the information too regularly. Limit updates to 1–2 updates a day — at the same time each day — unless you need to provide a significant and material update out-of-cycle. This ensures people don’t feel the need to constantly check the site for updates and will alleviate anxiety. It will also reduce the workload for your communication team at a time when they’ll already be stretched.

Pandemics are a test of leadership

Organisations will expect their teams to keep calm and carry on. And so, should their leaders. Chief executives should walk the floor and get out to some locations on the frontline to listen to concerns and provide reassurance. The visibility of leaders during this time is very important and they’ll need to do this in a safe manner, with the necessary health precautions. Now is also the time to consider splitting the work locations of critical employees. If someone becomes sick, critical employees will need to be replaced with someone who isn’t located in the same area for quarantine purposes.

Your workforce will also be assessing how you perform in a crisis, and whether decisions your leadership team makes are consistent with your organisational values.

Managers with teams will also need content to support their conversations. Talking points only go so far. Brief video explainers, and video messages from top management can ensure consistency, accuracy and empathy.

This is also an opportunity

Most organisations will have crisis plans in place. They may have also reviewed them regularly in crisis simulations. This is the time to test your plans, identify gaps and strengthen processes for the future.

Have the strength to acknowledge shortfalls, and the courage to admit when things go wrong. And take the steps to address and remediate these gaps.

Any organisation needs to balance decisions carefully, weighing the benefits and costs. Importantly, how you respond to the crisis, and the decisions you make in supporting your teams and your clients will have a lasting impact on trust and your organisation’s reputation. Tread carefully and wisely, with the long game in mind.


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