Crisis calls for clear communication

31/03/2020 - 12:47

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Public relations may not immediately spring to mind in terms of business sectors likely to experience ongoing demand amid the COVID-19-driven economic downturn.

Crisis calls for clear communication
Kirsty Danby instructed high-risk members of her team to work from home in early March.

Public relations may not immediately spring to mind in terms of business sectors likely to experience ongoing demand amid the COVID-19-driven economic downturn.

However, crisis management requires concise communication, and several agencies across Perth spoken to by Business News have reported an upswing in clients seeking advice on how to communicate with stakeholders.

Platform Communications director Kirsty Danby said businesses that weren’t on the books were being referred to them and asking for advice.

“We have had two new clients come to us, which would suggest there isn’t going to be a downturn for Platform,” she said.

Platform deals with crisis and issue management, mainly in the resources sector, and Ms Danby said the business put strategies in place early to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

According to the BNiQ database, the firm is the third largest in WA, with 14 consultants. 

Platform Communications was prepared for COVID-19 after senior staff from the firm travelled overseas in February and saw the seriousness of the situation elsewhere. 

By March 3, Ms Danby had written a COVID-19 policy for the office, employees in high-risk groups were asked to work at home, and the team began reaching out to clients to encourage them to be proactive.

“What we have found that up front, some of our clients, their first reaction was [to be] overwhelmed and the desire was about reacting and retreating but right from the beginning, we have advised them that they need to react in the total opposite way; there’s no better time than in the middle of a crisis to communicate as much as they can,” Ms Danby said. 

She also stressed the importance communicating clearly and trying to be ahead of the curve.

"Employers who share information, communicate early and often will help allay employee fears and rumours," she said. 

West Perth PR firm Citadel-MAGNUS found work slowed or was put on hold in the initial phases of COVID-19, when the share market dropped.

The firm, which is the eighth largest on the BNiQ database with eight consultants in WA, specialises in corporate and financial communications. 

Managing director John Gardner said work had picked up again as companies started to ask for help on how to communicate market updates, redundancies, shutting down operations and reducing their market forecasts.

He said fundamentally good businesses shouldn’t be too worried about the short-term and should instead focus on communicating clearly with shareholders.

“A lot of the share price hysteria has been driven by emotion over rationality at the moment and I think it’s important that companies keep that in mind and recognise that if they are a fundamentally good business, then one thing they should certainly do is stop looking at their share price data,” Mr Gardner told Business News.

“There’s no point looking at your share price day-to-day at the moment because it’s only going to make you depressed.

"The fundamentals of a lot of businesses are very good and so it’s about focusing on what they are good at and keep moving that forward.”

If businesses had a successful March quarter, he suggested they get their quarterlies out as early as possible to get ahead of the rush at the end of April when companies would be trying to bury their bad results.  

“If you are a good company that has had a relatively good March quarter, notwithstanding that the outlook is a little bit unknown at the moment, try and sharpen your investor relations and your market reporting so you can take advantage of the first half of April in terms of getting your quarterly results out,” Mr Gardner said.

Mr Gardner said he expected strategy to be an important part of his business when the pandemic subsided.

“Strategy is the area where we expect quite a bit of work to pick up again as we come through the challenge and as we start to get some visability of what is coming, perhaps in the second half of this year," he said. 

“This will redefine the way companies operate, it will redefine the ways they engage with their stakeholders, it will redefine how they communicate with those stakeholders and therefore strategy and how their communications strategy fits with that is going to be really key into the future.”

According to the BNiQ database, PR firms have experienced fairly even growth over the last year, with no movement between the top nine firms.

Cannings Purple remains the biggest firm in WA with 45 consultants, followed by Clarity Communications with 16.

Cannings Purple managing director Warrick Hazeldine said the firm had also experienced an increase in work since the onset of COVID-19.

He told Business News one of the things his team was focused on was building trust between its clients and its clients' stakeholders.

“It’s vital that businesses tell it all, tell it early and be the ones to tell it, to the extent that they can, in this fast-evolving and rapidly changing COVID-19 situation,” Mr Hazeldine said.

“It’s crucial that businesses stay close to their teams and markets and keep stakeholders informed of the measures that are being taken in response to COVID-19 and the impact it is having on their operations.

“Businesses have to build transparency and trust at all times but it’s especially important during this pandemic.”

Prior to COVID-19, Mr Hazeldine said he had seen optimism in the market.

“The economic situation has changed very quickly and it will take some time to right itself,” he said.

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