The time to plan PR for a post COVID-19 world is now

Paul Zennaro was Shell Australia’s country crisis manager for seven years. And, according to him, PR practitioners need to think longer term about the current coronavirus crisis, and start planning for when it's over.

In turbulent and uncertain times, human nature often compels us to withdraw and seek safe ground. An instinct for which corporate affairs professionals are not immune.

As advisers to the businesses in which we operate, we see our role in ‘peacetime’ as adding commercial value through targeted engagement. In times of crisis this role quickly expands to include being councillors to senior executives as they navigate periods of high scrutiny.

The coronavirus emergency, which we are all living through, is very different. For now.

As we all consume the barrage of mainstream and social media content on this emerging pandemic, many of us are seeking safe ground. We see the attention of journalists and consumers focussed on the reaction of government, the advice of health authorities and the incredible work being undertaken by medical research professionals.

For now, it would seem the intense gaze of public scrutiny has missed the actions and reactions of the thousands of businesses that deliver important, and often essential, services to 25m Australians and countless customers abroad. This is to be expected from an audience that is focussed on the health and wellbeing of its community.

This is not to say we are not doing important and valuable work right now. In fact, in a recent discussion with colleagues in the energy sector, it was obvious many are working long hours communicating with staff and customers about expectations around service provision and new measures needed to protect the health of employees. While others have been working with authorities to minimise the impacts of isolation measures on supply chains. This is valuable work that transcends commercial outcomes.

Like any societal emergency, the dynamics of coronavirus will continue to shift. In the near future when infection levels fall, medical treatments improve and a vaccine is found, the focus of the public will quickly shift to how the business community manages disruptions and adversity to provide services and supply goods.

Now is the time to prepare for the inevitable shift in public attention. Just as the medical emergency brought corporate pandemic planning into sharp focus, the next stage will bring attention to how we manage reputation. Not only to protect brand equity, but also restore consumer confidence.

The next stage of this event will need all corporate affairs teams to be prepared. The actions of communications professionals, be they in house or consultants, will need to be guided by established and well understood plans and procedures. The efforts of government relations professionals will need to be coordinated and highly efficient if they are to reach the ears of decision makers. And senior executives will expect processes that ensure the flow of information into their crisis rooms and out through their official channels will be timely and effective.

In my experience, all of these imperatives are achievable, but only when organisations are prepared. The time to prepare is now, while the gaze of the public remains on the health crisis. Because just as this health emergency will pass, so will the distractions that occupy the attention of our most important stakeholders.

Good luck in the times ahead. Stay healthy.

Paul Zennaro was Shell Australia’s country crisis manager for seven years. After more than a decade leading communications teams in Shell, he now advises business on how to use external communications to meet strategic goals


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