Coronavirus and Meetings
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The events industry has been brought to a standstill. Over the weekend, the CDC asked that all meetings with 50 or more people be cancelled for the next eight weeks in an effort to contain COVID-19. Yesterday, the White House released stricter guidelines covering the next two weeks, urging people not to gather in groups of more than 10.
The health of the industry hangs in the balance, with some experts predicting the outbreak may last for months. If one thing is clear during this uncertain time, it is the need for risk management and crisis communications plans.
To help planners prepare, Meeting Professionals International hosted a webcast for managing crisis communications during coronavirus. Presenter Alex Plaxen, vice president of experience strategy at Nifty Method Marketing + Events and the president and founder of Little Bird Told Media, offered advice.
A Level 4 Crisis
Plaxen stressed that all organizers, whether their event is scheduled to be held in the next few weeks or later in the year, must develop a crisis communications strategy for coronavirus.
"Typically, when I talk about crisis communications, it's this imaginary [scenario] of 'Well, this could happen.' But we're actually living a level 4 crisis right now," he said. "Every single event in the world is being impacted. This is something that you have to take seriously."
According to Plaxen, the COVID-19 pandemic can be classified as a level 4 crisis. This is the highest level and necessitates a response from the event planning team.
"You have to respond and communicate," said Plaxen. "You don't have a choice. If you're in a level 4 crisis and you choose not to communicate, that's going to lead to misinformation, potential damage to your brand and the potential that your event may never happen again."
A proper crisis communications plan is crucial. According to Plaxen, the plan should cover three stages: pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis. The pre-crisis stage involves conducting a vulnerability audit and monitoring crisis risks, making decisions about how to handle potential crises and training everyone who may be involved. During the crisis, planners should collect and process pertinent information and disseminate crisis messages as needed. Post-crisis steps involve assessing the crisis management efforts and providing any follow-up messages. For the coronavirus outbreak, this may include refund information for cancelled events or new dates for meetings that have been rescheduled.
It is of the utmost important that staff members communicate the same message during a crisis. Plaxen suggests deciding on one main idea and creating a message map with supporting points that will help ensure everyone is on the same page.
"For COVID-19, the main idea is not 'our event is being cancelled or postponed.' The main idea is 'our brand is trustworthy and you can count on us to do what is best for our stakeholders,'" he said. “You may never say those words, but your communications will convey the message."
This can be done through messages such as "we are monitoring the situation closely," "we empathize with our stakeholders," and "we plan to be transparent about our decision-making process." Event planners may also want to consider adding resource links to their website.
Whatever the message may be, Plaxen said it's crucial that all spokespeople are looped in.
"If your CEO is going to be talking and your social media manager is going to be posting to social channels, you want this main idea to go out to your entire team and make sure that they understand that all communications need to consistently convey this idea," he noted.
While each event will require its own messaging and communications plan, Plaxen offered the following general tips to keep in mind.
Be transparent. "This is the best way you're going to get through this from a marketing perspective," he said. "Uncertainty can cause confusion and panic, and you never want to cause confusion and panic with your attendees. Being transparent shows people that they can trust your brand."
Centralize information. Plaxen suggests creating an updated blog post or a landing page on your website to share all event updates. Social media can also be helpful, but be sure to pin the latest updates to the top of the page.
Don’t delete. "It is so tempting to delete your updates if they're no longer accurate and you don't want people to get confused," said Plaxen. But he noted that doing so would be a mistake and could cause confusion. "Rather than delete, just post clear updates. Having those old updates will help people understand the process that it took to get to this point. It also helps them empathize with you that this was not a decision that was made in the blink of an eye."
Use email first and foremost. "Email is the most effective way to communicate with people right now,” he explained. "The reason for that is it's easily searchable. People can go back to the email for information. It's also the most versatile because you can include lots of links to resources and information."
Establish expectations. Plaxen notes that it’s important to tell attendees, sponsors and stakeholders how often you plan to communicate with them and where the updates can be found.
Leverage your CVBs. "You may not be an expert on coronavirus. Very few of us are, so it's really important that you use your CVBs because they are doing the groundwork, getting information and resources, and gathering them into one place," he said.
Monitor social media. During a crisis, you are likely to receive many messages, comments and questions from attendees. It’s crucial that event coordinators take a proactive approach and dedicate some resources to monitoring and responding to these queries.
Exercise empathy. Communication staff members should be trained in customer service and approach messaging from a standpoint with empathy, as opposed to pure marketing.
Consistency is key. Any event changes, whether it be new dates or refund policies, should be communicated across all platforms.
Don't wait to communicate. Even events that are months away should be sharing messages on their COVID-19 plan now, says Plaxen. "This is a level 4 crisis. If your registration is open, then you have to say something."