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The Incidents of Half an Hour: Crisis Business Management

By Matthew Mapes on March 27, 2020

In the midst of a pandemic, there is much uncertainty. 

You can see someone building a castle from hoarded toilet paper, and five minutes down the road find a restaurant owner donating their entire stock of food to locals. Panic and reactionary responses to the unexpected are chaotic to say the least. Most people don’t lock themselves in their home for weeks or months at a time, and most businesses don’t have to figure out how to deal with a sudden lack of employees or income or supply lines. 

Times of crisis are like this. We reveal ourselves at a human level, and how we act is characteristic of who we are. Or, at the very least, it is characteristic of how people will see us in the days to come.

So what do we do?

I’ve been asking myself this question again and again. Does anything I’m doing right now matter? Individually, I can practice social distancing or work from home or help the businesses we serve implement temporary responses to this crisis. As part of a digital marketing company, we’re fortunate to be able to continue those services because most of our work happens online. 

Many of our clients are asking the same questions, and many more businesses besides. And not all of them can operate online, so what do they do? How do they work and keep the doors open and keep paying their employees? 

Step Back, Observe, Plan What You Can

Honestly, I don’t know. As a single person, or even as a whole digital marketing agency, there’s not a simple solution to the frankly overwhelming number of issues facing businesses right now. Sometimes transparency isn’t comfortable. Now is one of those times, but that doesn’t mean that we should lapse into inaction or complacency. 

We can’t provide a fix. That much is true, but what we can do is talk about marketing in the current environment. Review your business objectively, consider everyone involved, and ask how today shapes tomorrow for your business. So, practically speaking, what does that look like?

Review All Facets of Business

Now is the time for perspective. One of the things we’ve heard thrown around a lot is the term ‘essential business’. For most business owners, it’s probably easy to imagine that your entire source of income and the business that you’ve built or run is pretty damn essential, right?

And maybe it is. Maybe it’s not, that’s not the point right now. Considering whether or not your business is essential allows for an interesting thought experiment. Ask yourself some hard questions about your business that might not always be so obvious as you toil through daily operations.

Does this quarantine limit key employees, or is there room to expand your operations with online mediums and communication? Were you prepared to sustain unexpected shifts in the market, or did this massive blow to the economy reveal how close you were cutting it each quarter? Are you working from home, only to realize you married someone who answers business calls to say stuff like “Let’s circle back to that” or “We’ll put a pin in that idea for now”?

A lot is going on that, while focusing on a fully operational business, you might have started to overlook. This bit of advice is more open ended than the others, but it’s something that I’ve personally considered a great deal since the beginning of quarantine.

As the content editor for our team, I can see that a lot of my work can be done in the office, at home, from a bathroom in Germany. You get the idea. Of course, I can also see where lines of communication between specific departments within our company benefit more from in person interactions. Time tables for getting tasks organized and completed shift based on when and how I can discuss them with our digital marketing strategy manager, for example.

Likewise, those same insights would not have been so painfully visible if I had only ever occasionally experienced distance work. For many business owners, department heads, or even general employees, there is a great opportunity now to take stock of how different forms of communication influence your efficiency and the quality of your work. In other words, now is a great time to determine which aspects of your professional experience are essential and which elements can be improved or altered accordingly.

Consider the Human Element

As a twofold point, you’ll want to consider the human components of your business. For the most part, a company can’t exist without two major social components: employees and clients. Take a moment to consider how the Covid-19 situation impacts these people.

Employees

People are stressed right now. The Covid-19 crisis presents a risk to personal and social health, and the testing and treatment are so expensive that many can’t get approved or afford the medical bills. Meanwhile, general panic has turned simple things like grocery store trips into a near dystopian experience with lines out the door and constant reminders to keep a distance in the store. 

Top that off with government mandates to close certain businesses and the war of oil prices? A lot of people are worried about their jobs. Some people are already out of a job, and there is no clear date for when things will return to normal. Even after Covid-19 passes, the state of the economy is uncertain. People don’t know what to expect, and a silent employer only adds to that stress.

While you may be in the difficult position of trying to figure out how to balance accounts and keep your company’s doors open, radio silence will sew a great deal of unease in your company’s workers. It’s important to take the time to address your employees with an honest and open conversation about the state of things. 

Conversation won’t necessarily resolve the worries people are facing, but people should know where things stand. Right now, you want to avoid letting people go when you don’t need to. Keep communication clear and fluid, and do what you can to provide relief during incredibly stressful times. This is one of the most simple ways to take care of the people that make your business run, and it’s worth a lot more than most people realize.

Clients and Customers

In addition to your employees, the people that your business serves are likely facing the same concerns. Whether you’re a B2C or a B2B business, you should consider a formal address concerning the situation and how you anticipate the effects on your continued operations. 

For B2C businesses, if you sell products or services that involve a lot of personal interaction, open up about alternatives or distance options that allow for a continuation of services. Many restaurants have shifted to delivery and to go orders, for example. Yet, without some kind of social media post or email or notification, a lot of customers may assume the store is simply closed. 

That’s lost business, a big hit to revenue and your potential to keep employees on board. Non-food based establishments can consider keeping an open line of updates, estimated reopening times, and regular communication that helps patrons understand what’s going on. Again, don’t leave the people who support your business in the dark.

For B2B businesses, talk to your partners and clients. Assure them that services will continue uninterrupted, or be direct and open about what interruptions they should expect. It seems cheap to boil everything down to communication. Still, right now misinformation or a complete lack of information is going to be the greatest detriment to any business that hopes to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout the ongoing pandemic.

For many businesses, there’s going to be a sense of urgency when it comes to money. Providers will be worried about getting paid for their products and services if buyers are struggling due to closures and market downturns, and buyers will be concerned with the continuation of service due to social distancing and other disruptive factors. 

This is a natural reaction to uncertainty, but it also highlights why simple communication and providing clarity can be so incredibly valuable. An email or a phone call can secure a partnership through a difficult time.

Decide Your Future Now

My final point is also the only bit of real marketing advice I’ll offer. Don’t dig your own grave for short term gains.

Covid-19 is dominating all forms of communication. In the media, all across social media, even conversations between friends and family. It’s all about Covid-19, from how testing gets handled to how it impacts our lives directly. As a result, people are also paying far more attention to how companies do business right now.

If your favorite local restaurant closes, people pay attention to how they respond. Did they offer take out to keep their employees working? Did they fire all of their front of house staff immediately?

Which companies are trying to argue that they’re essential when most people would disagree? How many friends and family members still have to go into work and risk exposure because a corporate entity decided that profit was worth more than supporting public health?

My last point is about perception and brand.

Brand Impact During Covid-19

For a moment, let’s do another experiment. As a writer, I usually try to pay attention to how the tone or description of a thing influences a reader’s attitude. So, consider the two options below and think about how they make you feel:

  • Local physical therapy clinic begins offering telehealth options, waiving copays and deductibles to continue providing service amidst growing Covid-19 concerns. Company CEO, “Patients shouldn’t have to stop their progress or miss out on vital therapy sessions, or worry about additional financial burden in the middle of a national health emergency.”
  • One of the nation’s wealthiest companies asks overworked employees to donate time off to support vulnerable coworkers, at the same time a growing number of the company’s warehouses have reported potential positive cases of Covid-19 with no comment on how the company plans to address the potential spread of the disease.

These are essentially simplified, but real headlines. A majority of people will read an article’s headline and never bother opening the whole article, it’s what makes spin articles so successful at making the rounds even when the majority of their content is nonsense or outright contradictory to the headline. 

I won’t walk any thin lines here. Operating a business at any scale is hard, and when a crisis hits sometimes owners make hard choices like letting people go. At the same time, companies that openly prioritize profit over the general good of their employees or a community are not painting themselves in a flattering light.

At the moment, everything a business does is like a headline. 

When Amazon doesn’t test it’s warehouse employees, or asks them to donate their sick days, despite having an incredibly wealthy CEO and receiving criticism for how many of its employees are treated, it does not look good. 

On the flip side, when local business owners forgo their salary to keep their entire staff on board or a major corporation does as much as it can to provide vital medical supplies to hospitals and communities in need, it looks pretty good. 

Perception Is Rarely About Reality

As I mentioned, consumers largely do not know or care about the reality of a company or its financial situation. Other business owners might. Another business owner might look at a company go belly up in the middle of a recession and understand the degree of loss involved, but your average person cares more about perception, because that’s how they relate to the company. 

And to be fair, that’s a completely valid stance to have. Why would I care about Amazon beyond how it treats me or it’s employees? I’m not Jeff Bezos or someone with a lot invested in Amazon stock. I have way more in common with a low level Amazon employee than I do some C-level executives. When I see headlines about how poorly a company is treating employees or how a bunch of people like me were let go in the middle of a crisis, it creates a negative relationship between myself and that company.

During our current situation, between Covid-19 and the perilous markets, that relationship management is paramount. Businesses must balance the reality of their situation against how people will perceive any action taken right now.

In marketing and branding, you don’t necessarily want to give people what they think they want. Bending to an audience’s demands will water down messaging and lead to a lack of focus, all because you want to please too many people at once. However, this pandemic is rapidly reshaping how people interact with businesses and the world around them.

Developing and marketing a brand is a long term game. Why? Well, it takes a while to develop a voice and message and direction, and then it takes longer to convince people that the brand and the company it represents are the same. Developing a positive association is critical to preserving a healthy brand based relationship with your desired audience. 

Making the wrong decisions now could not only undo any positive brand development, it could significantly harm your image for the foreseeable future. Moments like these, where there is a high intensity focus on keeping a job, surviving illnesses, and weathering a major financial storm are defining moments. Both for businesses and people. 

So, what do we do?

Try your best.

Right now, the state of the world is uncertain. We don’t know when the pandemic will officially end, we don’t know how the markets will look tomorrow or a year from now, and there’s no guarantee that things will improve immediately.

Everyone is stuck at home watching as the present unfolds, so right now, the best thing we can do for ourselves and our businesses is to try our best. Be the best version of yourself and communicate with clarity, be willing to adapt your business and your strategies to an uncertain future, and try your best to act with good intentions. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

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