[PODCAST] Crisis Management Expert Warns Employers, Don't "Play Doctor"

How to Respond to Covid-19 | Bill Coletti

A co-worker coughs and beads of sweat form on her forehead. You can see the anxiety on your team members’ faces. Your client arrives, apologizes for “being a bit under the weather,” then extends his hand to shake. It’s also conference season, your primary source of new business for the year. Most, but not all of them, have canceled their events. Your VP of Sales warns he needs to lower projections. A few suppliers delivered notices that materials you need for production are being delayed. And requests to work from home and cancel travel are piling up in HR’s inboxes. 

Concerns and fear about Covid-19 are in overdrive. Contradictory information from authorities isn’t helping. Headlines news just keeps fueling fear. Uncertainty is crippling engagement, participation, and productivity, and dominates both meeting agendas and water-cooler talk.

What should you do? You need to act now because your company’s future and its reputation depends on it.

Welcome to the club. You’re part of a growing legion of not-so-exclusive leaders from all walks of life from around the world facing another crisis. You thought you were prepared after the last one caught your flat-footed. You hired a crisis management expert, sent management for training, and had HR rewrite all their policies and procedures for an event just like this. And yet this one feels different. Communicating in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity has always been a leadership challenge but your skills are being pushed to the limits.

For help on managing a crisis and protecting your company’s reputation, we turned to a crisis management expert, Bill Coletti. Coletti spent the last 25 years managing high stakes crises just like Covid-19, In fact, Coletti feels he works best when his clients feel disrupted in the age of disruption.

Where to start?  The purpose of crisis management is simple. Escape from the crisis unscathed, with your reputation intact. So a good place to start this conversation begins with “what is reputation?” Coletti quotes Seth Godin, “reputation is what people expect us to do next.” He goes one step further and calls it “nexpecations.” Consequently, what you do and say defines your reputation going forward?

In times of crisis, people look to their leaders for guidance and truth. Coletti therefore suggests commitment to candor, transparency, and authenticity. Share what you know – and don’t know – along the way. 

“Don’t play doctor!”

“Don’t play doctor,” Coletti advised our listeners. You’ve got to be honest with your employees, customers, vendors, and suppliers. Silence breeds fear. Fear breeds mistrust.  Mistrust can trash your reputation and go viral in the age of Googlization. Point to official sources of information (CDC, state and local health authorities) and use their guidance to inform your decision-making.  Bill warns leaders to avoid incorporating their own biases and opinions into their messaging. “That can backfire in a big way.” When the fear of the unknown seeps into the workforce, maintaining a clear mindset is key for leaders inside organizations. 

Unfortunately, because most companies have not put much attention to proactive crisis management, especially an epidemoliogical event like Covid-19. By the time their employees come to work, breaking news has shaped their reality. It’s therefore important to reassure and keep reassuring your employees and customers. For many of them, you represent the sound of reason, their safety net. Let your employees and guests/customers know their health and safety is your top priority. Be transparent with what you’re doing to keep them safe.

More Ways to Manage Covid-19 and Keep Your Reputation Intact

Take a few very visible steps to Increase cleaning and sanitization standards. Advising people to “wash your hands fregquently” is good advice but making hand sanitizer readily available is better. Assess your HR/workplace policies that might encourage sick employees to come to work. Requiring employees to use vacation days for illness might encourage them to come to work. Many workers live paycheck to paycheck. Maybe it’s time to implement ways to allow employees to work remotely and/or to implement a sick policy.

Another easy and practical recommendation from Coletti was “be mindful of the herd.” Keep an eye on what your competitors, industry leaders, and similar organizations are doing. There’s no need to be in lockstep with them but be smart and strategic. It’s rarely the best approach to be the disruptor during a disruption and take a different path than everyone else. Your plans might include reducing operations, putting in place policies to deal with the virus, as well as getting back to business when the threat passes.

Eventually this crisis will pass and you will need to go back to your “regularly scheduled programming.” Watch for signs that it’s okay to come down from red alert – shifts in news coverage to other topics (less “breaking news”), cancelled warnings or withdrawal of government notices, a rebound in the stock market that lasts more than 24 hours. 

It’s tempting “to look for quick fixes, to put out the fire,” says Coletti. The better approach is to look at these events as “critical moments” because “critical moments” offer you the opportunity to shape and protect your reputation going forward.

Finally, once the Covid-19 crisis fades and before the next crisis arrives, assess whether the policies and changes that you made for coronavirus should remain in place for other infectious disease outbreaks such as influenza, pneumonia, and common colds.) Take the opportunity to instill a culture of a healthy workplace.

Nearly every company and organization is facing a critical moment. How you respond to the Covid-19 crisis will determine your reputation going forward? Employees and clients are watching what you’ll do next? For more tips and advice, listen to this episode of the Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization podcast and also get a copy of Bill Coletti’s book, Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management.

Listen now to hear the rest of my interview with Bill Coletti.

Related Resources:

Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management (Book)

Connect with Bill Coletti

Company Website: Kith.co

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/billcoletti

Twitter: @bcoletti